BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Almost exactly four years ago, Idina Menzel played Chastain Park Amphitheatre.
At the time, she was already rooted in the hearts of teens for her Tony turns in “Rent” (nominated) and “Wicked” (won) and occasional appearances on “Glee.”
But since Menzel’s last performance at the church of chatter known as Chastain, she’s reached a stratospheric level of stardom far beyond the theater nerds. Part of it is thanks to John Travolta mangling her name on the most prominent of awards shows and her gracious recovery. But most of it is because of another high-profile, Tony-nominated role in “If/Then” and a little Disney ballad that implores us to “Let it Go.”
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This newfound mainstream fame prompted Menzel’s first world tour, which traveled Asia and Europe in May and June and kicked off in the U.S. a couple of weeks ago.
At Friday’s nearly sold-out Chastain return, Menzel demonstrated early and often that she is not only one of the most commanding vocalists in modern music, but one of our most refreshingly candid and likeable stars.
Opening her 100-minute set with one of her most treasured songs, “Defying Gravity,” Menzel boldly navigated the cascading key changes and huge notes that punctuate the “Wicked” staple.
She quickly found her sweet spot – more Broadway, of course – with a rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” that glided rather than punched, except for that soaring, forever-held end note. Who among Menzel’s peers (so yes, taking Streisand out of the running) could handle the booming song so adroitly?
But we all know that Menzel’s warm, husky voice, which sometimes veers toward shrieking until she effortlessly reins herself in or, amazingly, kicks it up another notch, is a superior instrument. You can hear it on record or on a Broadway stage.
What makes her live show so appealing is Menzel herself.
She’s funny. Within the first 10 minutes, she teased latecomers by re-creating her opening moves to inform them of what they missed, looked forlornly at the never-ending daylight and asked, “What time does it get dark here?” and joked with and posed for the press photographers stationed at the soundboard.
A bit later, sitting on a stool and preparing to introduce Joni Mitchell’s poignant “River,” Menzel laughed that she didn’t know how she was going to sing a song with so many winter overtones in the oppressive Atlanta heat.
“It’s so f****** hot!” she exclaimed.
That’s the thing about Menzel. Yes, the spotlight that comes with singing songs associated with “The Wizard of Oz” (no matter how loosely) and Disney cartoons attracts munchkin-sized fans – and many adorable little girls in Elsa dresses and other “Frozen”-wear were spotted scooting around the Chastain tables.
But Menzel, 44, is an adult. And she sings about adult things, like self-empowerment (her own ballad, “Brave”), the fleeting nature of time (“Rent”’s lovely “No Day But Today,” which she dedicated to show creator Jonathan Larson) and the kind of dark, sad longing nestled in Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and The Police’s “Roxanne,” which she folded together for a visceral double punch.
While any Menzel fan would gladly sit for days and listen to her belt show tunes – especially her renditions of the great Ethel Merman favorites “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (redrawn with a jazzy bent and spicy horns), “Anything Goes” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” – there is no doubt that Menzel’s cover of “Creep” deserves song MVP honors.
“Some mornings I wake up and just don’t feel like singing a song like ‘Let it Go,’” Menzel said, sitting on the stage in bare feet.
It was a fitting preface to a gorgeously slinky version of the Radiohead song, infused with horn bleats, more gut-wrenching vocals and yes, the original lyrics (see: Menzel is an adult).
The performance earned her a deserved ovation.
It’s easy to see why Menzel has been so readily embraced by the mainstream once they became aware of her. Women are drawn to her realistic image of strength and vulnerability and men, well…just look at her.
But while Menzel, backed by her five-piece band and local musicians comprising a six-piece horn section and orchestral quartet, always charmed, there were a few moments that didn’t wow.
She’s better than the generic pop anthem “I Stand,” and the song “Still I Can’t Be Still” from her first album (“About three people bought it,” Menzel joked) isn’t great, but it clearly means something to her. And frankly, she’s earned the right to some artistic indulgence.
Likewise, “Take Me or Leave Me” from “Rent” found Menzel donning slippers to head into the crowd to find some duet partners. She no doubt thrilled the five people who joined her on the summery stroll of a song, but it was a bit that went on several minutes too long.
It would have been preferred if she used some of that time to instead sing “For Good,” the most stirring song from “Wicked,” in its entirety. What Menzel performed of the heart-tugging ballad was a capella, leading to a chill-inducing moment and a worthy intro to the colossal “Let it Go,” which burst with theatricality and Hulk-sized notes.
Menzel talked often during the show about how she’s living her dream of a singing career – and now beyond the Broadway stage – and how she tries to live her life in the moment.
No doubt that she created some moments for many in the crowd to tuck away in the memory bank.