Idina Menzel: Barefoot with the NSO

Fontanel Mansion and Farm used to be the home of country music entertainer Barbara Mandrell. On Saturday night, it briefly became the domain of a very different diva, this one named Menzel.

Idina Menzel, the popular Broadway vocalist, was at Woods Amphitheater, on the grounds of the old Mandrell estate, to perform with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.menzel3 The concert was part of Menzel’s current tour to promote her CD and DVD Barefoot at the Symphony. Naturally, she bounced onstage Saturday shoeless.

Her performance started even before her entrance.  As the orchestra began to play, we heard Menzel’s plush voice singing offstage, intoning the familiar strains of Harold Arlen’s timeless “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That song seemed like the perfect opener for Menzel. She was, after all, the original Elphaba from the musical Wicked. Once onstage, she segued quickly into one of her Wicked showstoppers, “The Wizard and I.” The audience, which was clearly filled with Broadway buffs, roared with approval.

Menzel is best known for her Broadway work, but she’s a versatile singer and actress. Indeed, she’s been seen of late making frequent guest appearances on the popular TV show Glee. She spent much of Saturday evening showcasing her eclectic vocal style.

Menzel seemed comfortable singing almost anything. She gave Bono his due with a heartfelt rendition of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and she bounced like an over-caffeinated Cyndi Lauper in Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” I was most impressed with her delivery of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” That song is so familiar it’s hard to make new. Menzel made it her own, singing it with immediacy and unfailing sensitivity.

She also made the old standards seem fresh. Her performance of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” which she sang as a medley with the Police hit “Roxanne,” was remarkable for its vulnerability. She sang the Barbra Streisand hit “Don’t Rain On My Parade” with Streisandesque energy and power.

Menzel’s between-song banter was often funny and sometimes quite salty. I enjoyed her saltiness, but I could have done without some of her digressions, which were often too windy. The fans, however, didn’t mind, and they were certainly elated when she came down into the audience to sing “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent. From time to time, she handed the microphone to fans, many of whom knew the song cold. And since these fans were in Nashville, it was hardly surprising to learn that many of them could actually sing.

The Nashville Symphony, under the direction of conductor Matthew Kraemer, provided flexible and sensitive accompaniment throughout the concert. One personal note: I was at Saturday’s concert with my wife for our anniversary, and we were both surprised and thrilled that Menzel ended the show with our song, “Somewhere” from West Side Story. How’d she know?

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.