Review: Kristin Chenoweth Stars in a Joyous Christmas at the Met
The Broadway icon leads an eclectic evening of music at the Metropolitan Opera.
Like a sexy Pope, Kristin Chenoweth entered the house of the Metropolitan Opera, that basilica of the performing arts, on a litter carried by attractive male dancers. Wearing a dress made of white feathers, she sang the good news to her congregation with a medley of "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man With the Bag" and "Jingle Bell Rock," a swinging, snazzy opening to her holiday concert, Christmas at the Met.
I defy anyone to argue that this is too grandiose an entrance for the beloved Broadway diva. This is Chenoweth's second concert at the Met, taking place 14 years after her 2007 debut. Since then, her star has only grown brighter, and she has more than earned her mitre as the high priestess of a beleaguered form of American cultural unity. Who else but Chenoweth could ride into the center of liberal, secular Manhattan and sing several sincerely felt devotional numbers — all received with radiant adoration from her most dedicated fans (the gays)? In a society as tribalized as ours, that is power.
It is a testament to Chenoweth's eclectic musical taste and expansive range that she easily moved from a sassy, jazzy song flattering her Manhattan audience ("There's New York City…and the rest of the world") to a soaring rendition of the Alabama anthem "Angels Among Us," dedicated to hospital workers, some of whom took the stage with her.
Chenoweth is a generous headliner, inviting other talented musicians to perform on the stage of the greatest opera house on Earth: J. Harrison Ghee, on an off night from Mrs. Doubtfire, sang a chillingly beautiful duet of the Mark Lowry-Buddy Greene song "Mary, Did You Know?" A steady beat undergirded the arrangement, with a groovy interlude performed by guitarist Josh Bryant (with whom Chenoweth recently got engaged).
Chenoweth also shared the stage with Keb' Mo' for "Merry Christmas Baby," after which the blues guitarist took over with his solo rendition of "Please Come Home for Christmas" (both songs were originally performed by Charles Brown). What a delight to hear the blues at the Met.
She welcomed SNL star Cecily Strong (currently in tech for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe) for a hilarious new version of the Frank Loesser holiday favorite, here titled "KC, It Sucks Outside."
And Chenoweth even paid tribute to her late soprano sisters, Rebecca Luker and Marin Mazzie, with a heartfelt rendition of "Till There Was You" from The Music Man, leaving an empty spotlight on each side of the stage.
Chenoweth was backed by a quartet of powerhouse vocalists (Crystal Monee Hall, Nikki Kimbrough, Marissa Rosen, and the aforementioned Ghee) and a hearty orchestra led by Mary-Mitchell Campbell on the piano (her banter with Chenoweth is always a riot). Still, more is more for Chenoweth, who brought in additional backup singers for her marvelously over-the-top version of "O Holy Night" (there's no reason to do that song if you're not willing to be extra). The audience was even deputized to sing along to the Carpenters' ditty "Sing," briefly giving us all those Sesame Street warm fuzzies.
That communal spirit carried through the intermission to a truly dramatic second-half opener: Chenoweth sang the Stephen Schwartz Hanukkah number "We Are Lights," and at the climatic moment the chandeliers of the Met descended and lit up, prompting members of the audience to spontaneously take out their phones and create hundreds of twinkling lights in the house.
Chenoweth delivered similarly emotional renditions of Mancini and Mercer's "Moon River" and "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," which was always my least favorite song in Sweeney Todd until Chenoweth really made me listen to the lyrics, her shimmering and expressive soprano illuminating the subtext in every syllable. Continuing her tribute to Stephen Sondheim, Chenoweth sang a medley of "Losing My Mind" from Follies and "Always on My Mind" by Willie Nelson that surprisingly really worked. I hope it gets recorded someday.
Many of the songs on Chenoweth's program are from her recently released Christmas album, Happiness Is…Christmas! That includes the title track, a new version of "Happiness" from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (the show that won Chenoweth a Tony in 1999). With lyrics about hot cocoa and presents under the tree, the song is gorgeously evocative of the season. Chenoweth adds a faintly bittersweet aftertaste as she sings about loved ones that you may not see any other time of the year. It's the kind of masterful interpretation that only a performer like her can produce.
In Christmas at the Met, Kristin Chenoweth once again proved that she combines the vocal prowess of an opera diva, the pure showmanship of a Broadway icon, and the irresistible charisma of a megachurch preacher in one adorable little body. All I want for Christmas is a promise that I can one day see her play Tammy Faye Bakker, because I doubt anyone could capture her spirit better on the Broadway stage.