Mandy Gonzalez: Fearless!
The Hamilton and Wicked star makes her Café Carlyle debut.
Mandy Gonzalez opens her show at the Café Carlyle with a pinched performance of "Raise the Roof" from Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. She hits every note, but something about her delivery feels forced and joyless, despite the sultry Latin beat. We brace ourselves for an evening of the kind of stylizing screaming that so often passes for singing in the post-American Idol age. Luckily, that's not what happens.
Once she gets over her opening number jitters, Gonzalez reveals herself to be a skilled vocalist who grounds every moment in real heart and soul, all while maintaining a healthy relationship with her diaphragm. We hear that in her second number: She sings the "Unlimited" motif from Wicked (Gonzalez appeared as Elphaba on Broadway in 2010) before transitioning into a jazzy rendition of Burton Lane and Alan Lerner's "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever". As the band drives the beat, Gonzalez's voice soars above in glorious legato. By the time she gets to her third song, the Marc Antony salsa number "Vivir Mi Vida," we're sold — and dancing in our seats.
Gonzalez's wide-ranging taste makes for an eclectic evening that never gets stale or repetitive. She bowls us over with her heartfelt interpretation of "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard, but we're even more moved by her hopeful performance of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," which is finally becoming the Broadway showtune it was always meant to be. Her groovy take on Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "I Only Have Eyes for You" offers the kind of mellow sophistication we associate with the Carlyle. Later, Christopher Jackson joins her onstage to perform "Life Is Sweet," a tear-stained country duet that is sure to be the highlight of the show for Hamilton super-fans.
Gonzalez is taking two weeks off from playing Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton, but she sings two numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda in this show: The first is "Breathe" from In the Heights, which sounds as powerful as when Gonzalez originated it on Broadway. Then there's "Fearless," an inspiring anthem of courage in a fearful time, which Miranda wrote specifically for Gonzalez. Both songs can be heard on her new album.
Pianist and music director John Deley tackles the varying styles in this show with confidence and flair. His interlude improvisations on the jazzier numbers are guaranteed to give you goosebumps. More importantly, he leads the rest of the band (Matt Beck on guitar, Richard Hammond on bass, Abe Fogle on drums) in precise and well-considered dynamics, allowing Gonzalez to monologue over the music at key points.
For instance, right after she relates a memory of seeing her father's band perform Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready," Gonzalez energetically sings it (and we look around for a tambourine to bang). As the band settles into a slower tempo, she tells the story of how her mom and dad met as pen pals while he was serving in Vietnam. The song returns completely transformed, almost psychedelic. Gonzalez's ability to integrate story and song while maintaining the intimacy of the room is what makes this such a satisfying cabaret experience.
She's also really funny, like when she performs Joe Raposo's " Being Green" to commemorate her time in Wicked. "When my daughter was born, I swear I found some of that green makeup behind her ears," she whispers during the interlude. "She's only a child!" Immediately following that, she sings a slow-jam "Defying Gravity," which feels much more manageable in the Carlyle dining room than the bombastic show version.
Gonzalez wraps it all up with a bluesy take on "Que Sera Sera" that sounds like it was arranged by Ray Charles for a young Whitney Houston. At this point, the vocal pyrotechnics feel earned, rather than desperate — like the fireworks after a home run. This is one of those near-perfect cabaret performances in which you just sit back and say, "Wow."