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Kristin Chenoweth Unbound

Marc Miller cheers the long-awaited release of KRISTIN CHENOWETH's first solo CD on the Sony Classical label. logo

For such a relatively young performer, Kristin Chenoweth has already exhibited so many personas that she's practically uncategorizable. On her new solo debut CD, Let Yourself Go (Sony Classical SK 89384, set for release on May 29), the sixth track, "The Girl in 14-G," clears up the mystery: It turns out that there are three Kristin Chenoweths.

In this number, Kristin #1 plays a sweet, young thing moving into a high-rise and settling down to a cup of tea and Jane Austen only to be interrupted by Kristin #2, a coloratura in 13-G rehearsing the Queen of the Night, and Kristin #3, an Ella Fitzgerald wanna-be-bop jazz stylist in 15-G. All three crowd into the recording studio, vocalizing expertly and charmingly, and they are briefly joined by a fourth, Ethel Mermanesque Kristin. This one holds notes like they were long-term certificates, thus hinting at possible other Kristins; maybe there's a farm in her native Oklahoma that grows them. The woman is, in short, dazzling. And the number, written especially for her by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan, would stop any show on earth. It's that rarity: a new song with the wit, tunefulness, and craftsmanship of a vintage classic.

If you saw Chenoweth's Tony-winning performance as Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and/or her (very) supporting role in Steel Pier and/or her star turns in the Encores! series' On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Musicals in Mufti's Billion Dollar Baby, you know how multitalented--and, therefore, how hard to pin down--she is. Petite, blonde, and squeaky-voiced, she seems the nice, normal ingénue...until she reveals all those other voices and personalities, including a mean comic streak with a surprising dose of nastiness in it. She's naturally funny, she's warm, she can belt, she can torch, she can tap-dance (and does, on the title track). She can probably sing the Bell Song from Lakmé, and I'd like to hear her try. But, for now we have this CD, with a pedigree befitting its star. Rob Fisher conducts the Coffee Club Orchestra; Ralph Burns, Russell Warner, and Bruce Coughlin supply most of the arrangements (the rest are the Broadway originals); the song list is mostly by the Kern-Rodgers-Hart-Gershwin-Berlin elite; and Kristin proves, in track after track, that she's the real thing.

The songs are a well-chosen bunch--though maybe we don't need to hear "My Funny Valentine" again, even in its pearly Hans Spialek setting, conducted a little ploddingly by Fisher. Ditto for "I'll Tell the Man in the Street," presented in an arrangement very like the one on Streisand's first album. Chenoweth is not always comfortable within the confines of a conventional, 32-bar ballad; she needs something roomier to roam around in, and her delivery on these is a bit too self-consciously arty. On the other hand, if you can listen to her "How Long Has This Been Going On?" (with a gorgeous, solo piano accompaniment by Fisher) or "Why Can't I?" (a neglected Rodgers and Hart heartbreaker) without choking up, you're a stronger man than I.

But it's the comic Chenoweth who really shines. She has terrific fun with Kurt Weill's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and the little known "Should I Be Sweet?" (Vincent Youmans/Buddy De Sylva), wherein she gets to trot out the shall-I-sing-it-sweet-or-hot gimmick so dear to Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. She seems to belong naturally to that era, both in the album's period-fashion photo spread (all dolled up in Jean Harlow satin) and in her feistier songs. Chenoweth is like a gallery of the tough Warner Bros. broads from back when: predatory and lusty on "Daddy," a snarling, homicidal tootsie on "If You Hadn't, But You Did," torchy and direct on "Just An Ordinary Guy" (a Langston Hughes poem set to an elegant Ricky Ian Gordon pastiche).

In fact, she's so versatile that even John Lahr's liner notes lament how hard Chenoweth is to cast. She really is Nellie Forbush, he suggests, but with the added edges of a complicated millennial woman. So it's a little distressing to contemplate her next career move: Kristin, an NBC sitcom debuting on June 5. Can TV contain her, or will it process all the individuality out of her? A hint is supplied on the CD's fifth track, a snappy Gershwin duet called "Hanging Around With You," featuring guest artist Jason Alexander. In strides the sitcom colossus with all his slick TV timing, and not in the best of voice. Kristin's as delightful as ever here, but Alexander's aggressive punching of the not-very-funny patter almost sinks the number.

Let it serve as a warning, then: Kristin, we love you just the way you are. Good luck on the tube, but don't let it change you. And, if your series flops, we'll take you back in a flash. Meantime, how about another album?

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