Elena Shaddow: Always Better
Broadway's most seasoned understudy claims a well-deserved spotlight as she ushers in a new golden age of musical theater.
Perennial understudy Elena Shaddow has built a career on winning over despondent audiences. In a presumably refreshing change of pace, Shaddow made her solo debut at 54 Below on Saturday evening, performing to a sold-out crowd whose tickets, appetizers, and wine spritzers had been sold on her name alone.
Always Better takes its name from the closing number in Broadway's short-lived The Bridges of Madison County. Shaddow originated the lead role of Francesca Johnson at Williamstown Theatre Festival before graciously handing over the part to Kelli O'Hara, whom she understudied throughout the show's all too brief run. The audience was unquestionably filled with devoted Bridges fans still grieving their loss, for her performance of the song "Always Better" (the only Bridges tune on the bill) melted the crowd into an emotional puddle of audible sobs. Beyond the beauty of Jason Robert Brown's Tony-winning melody and lyrics, Shaddow's interpretationstands up to O'Hara's Tony-nominated performance, offering just as much heart and vocal richness as the headlining star — particularly in the song's biggest moments where Shaddow can unleash the full power of her stunning upper register.
The majority of Shaddow's set list was dedicated to what she calls the "new golden age of Broadway" — a term with which Broadway cynics, looking at today's sparse platter of fresh offerings on the Great White Way, may take issue. The evening's roster of composers, however, featured some of musical theater's most promising representatives, giving Shaddow a strong canvas on which to display her personal performance style. She tailored Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk's touching song "I Drove You Home," to serve as a loose narration of the story of her son's birth (with some much appreciated interjections by her young daughter from the audience), and threw in some casual comedy with a tune by Adam Overett about an actor/singer whose two left feet stand between her and triple-threatdom.
Also prominently featured were the songs of her pianist and music director Georgia Stitt (wife of Bridges composer Jason Robert Brown and Shaddow's fellow Sound of Music Live! costar). A vocabulary lesson has never been so pleasant as Shaddow's performance of Stitt's thoughtful ballad "Palimpsest" (look it up). Former Bridges castmates Caitlin Kinnunen and Jessica Vosk eventually joined in for Stitt's feminine-fueled trio "Before I Lose My Mind," followed up later by a cathartic rendition of the Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green song "Burn That Bridge" from the 2013 musical Hands on a Hardbody — a celebratory moment of camaraderie that could warm the hearts of even the greatest Bridges adversaries.
Shaddow and Vosk later dueted to the Sara Bareilles song "I Choose You" — a number that allowed Vosk to show off her own incredible vocal strength, which was unfortunately also buried in the ranks of the production's understudies. Even so, every one of the evening's numbers seemed part of Shaddow's joyful love letter to her community of Broadway performers and composers that exist outside the narrow spotlight of above-the-title billing — though she certainly does not eliminate the possibility of a future spotlight for herself or her fellow artists. In the process, Shaddow more than proved that any Broadway audience would be lucky to see the name Elena Shaddow fall out of a Playbill — or better yet, find a permanent place in the coveted slot above the title.