IOWA CITY — The glimmer of sequins, the rustle of taffeta, the crispness of bow ties — and Kristin Chenoweth in a black Hawkeye T-shirt nearly as long as her shimmering silver dress.
The air was crackling inside Hancher on New Year’s Eve, long before the petite dynamo whirled onstage for more than 90 minutes of stories and songs to usher in 2019 with the glint of glamour.
Little clusters of theater movers and shakers from both ends of the Corridor mingled among the gathering throng that would fill all but the upper reaches of the upper balcony for an evening of music celebrating the human experience.
She had us at hello, but adding a touch of University of Iowa pride endeared her even a little more to an audience ready to party with the Tony- and Emmy-winning star and her elite ensemble.
Besides Chenoweth’s killer vocals, the great charm of the evening was a relaxed cabaret feel from mixing music with glimpses into her personal life, her career trajectory and the reason for her song choices.
She’s just so genuine — like someone you really want to know and party with.
After stripping off her Hawkeye shirt to reveal the mirror-reflection of her silver cocktail dress, she took a moment to express her gratitude for the warm welcome she received at Hancher’s stage door.
“I’m not in New York anymore,” she quipped, adding that she was loving her first trip to Iowa City and to the new Hancher. Spreading her arms wide to embrace the auditorium, she marveled at how “something so horrific as a flood can make something as beautiful as this.
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“Chuck Swanson (Hancher’s executive director) said this stage was built with love. I feel it. I’m grateful for it,” she said. “Music is the extension of the Spirit God, and I get to be here tonight. I’m lucky I get to still do this and people still want to come see me.”
And with that, she launched into Henry Mancini’s “The Sweetheart Tree,” a lovely tribute to her parents, who have been together 55 years. She spoke lovingly of her folks and her native Oklahoma, but the funniest story was when her folks came to see her Broadway concert. She introduced them to the audience the first night, and they reluctantly waved from their front-row seats. The next night, they waved a little more bravely, but the third night, the spotlight swung around to two empty seats. They had ditched her to see “Hamilton” instead.
Between songs, Chenoweth exchanged some friendly banter with her musical director and pianist, Mary-Mitchell Campbell. “I stole her away from ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘The Prom’ to bring her here tonight,” Chenoweth said, underscoring the fact that Campbell is working with two of the hottest shows on Broadway right now. Also surrounding the star with sound were Damien Bassman on drums, Eric Davis on guitar, Brian Hamm on electric and standup bass and Justin Smith on violin.
Committed to educational excellence through her Broadway Boot Camp at the theater that bears her name in her hometown of Broken Arrow, Okla., she sprinkled teachable moments throughout her show. When she blanked on the writer of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” she urged the music students in the audience to always know who wrote the songs they’re performing.
Better yet, the Broadway goddess who played Glinda the Good in “Wicked” showed she’s very human, indeed, when she got lost in the middle of singing one of that show’s most popular numbers, “Popular.” The lyrics “frank analysis” tripped her up. She owned the moment, laughed and jumped back in. Campbell told her it was “karma” for making a big deal out of the pianist’s approaching midnight birthday, bedecking the spotlight-shy Campbell with a sash, tiara and band revealing T-shirts bearing the pianist’s photo under their button-down shirts.
“I have been singing that song for 15 years,” Chenoweth exclaimed, aghast over her memory lapse. Again addressing the students in the audience, she added, “This is what happens when you think you know it so well.”
The rest of the concert was flawless.
Afterward, my friends and I were trying to name our favorite song of the evening, and we each embraced a different one. Among the standouts were a gorgeous lullaby version of “Beautiful Dreamer” sung in English and Spanish; her glorious premiere of adding the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to her concert repertoire; a slow, mournful rendition of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter,” sung as a gut-wrenching musical response when she and Campbell heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings; the bubbly “Taylor the Latte Boy” from her 2005 album, “As I Am”; and her heart-shattering prayer, “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables,” dedicated to all the troops “fighting the good fight,” with the final note suspended in air as the spotlight faded to black.
Near the end of the show, UI musical theater students Ashlynn Dale, Darwin Kohl, Zane Larson, Sage Spiker, Shelby Tipling, Emily Wheeler, Austin Wicke and Shelby Zukin joined her onstage to raise the roof with the gospel flair of “Upon This Rock,” also from her “As I Am” album. Trained in opera, her huge voice rose time and again to the highest heights, piercing through all the other voices around her.
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But for her encore, she put down the microphone, asked us to hold hands with whomever we came, and left us with a quiet New Year’s wish to “Just Smile.”
She exited to two standing ovations, wild cheers and thunderous applause.
But the party wasn’t over. Champagne and apple juice awaited the audience in the lobby, and at least 10 minutes of festive fireworks exploded over the Hancher Green — welcoming 2019 with a touch of elegance.
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