DES MOINES — Idina Menzel: Barefoot at the Symphony is the best concert I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of writing reviews.
I’m confident the 1,799 other fans whooping, whistling and leaping to their feet throughout her two-hour concert Friday night at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines agree.
This was a truly special evening of intimacy and elegance from the Tony-winning actress who shot to fame in “Rent,” soared on her broomstick through “Wicked” as the green-skinned leading lady and cast her spell over a new generation of musical theater wannabes as Rachel’s mom on “Glee” TV.
Not only can she sing the socks off everything from Broadway to U2 and Sting, she does it barefoot in front of soaring orchestral arrangements played by her core ensemble and Des Moines Symphony musicians. Better yet, she frames each song with lusty tales from her personal and professional lives. For as polished and profound as her image is on stage and screen, the schoolgirl from Long Island is still just a little bit wicked. And everybody’s new best friend.
It’s like we all met for some casual coffee talk laced with amazing musical cream and sugar.
She began in a profile silhouette behind lovely white draping, belting out “Over the Rainbow,” her loose ponytail reminiscent of another Ozian visitor’s iconic pigtails. Then she stepped forward to romp through “The Wizard and I,” punctuated by cheers from her adoring fans, including me.
“I didn’t know how many friends I had in Des Moines,” she said incredulously. The crowd, which included lots of my friends from college and the Corridor, roared its collective approval.
Addressing the first of two sign language interpreters standing off to the side, she said: “OK Bill — you and me — tonight we’re gonna dance.” That captures perfectly the spirit in which each and every person in the audience felt swept away on a her magical ride. Yes, I’m gushing, because it really was that good. No, spectacular.
Not everything was larger than life. She was especially enchanting wrapping her warm mezzo around ethereal, lush strings, percussion and piano on “Both Sides Now,” bringing a tenderness to the spotlight as her bohemian blue gown with sequined straps swirled around her simple barstool perch.
One of the most delightful glimpses backstage came from singing for her idol, Barbra Streisand, during the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. She said the magnitude of it made her throw up three times before she stepped onstage to sing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (which she sang for us). At a White House dinner afterward, where Streisand ignored her for an hour and a half, the diva finally turned to her and said, “Did you sing for me tonight? I wasn’t wearing my glasses.” When the crushed Menzel replied that she had, Streisand said, “You were good,” then left. Not quite the reaction she was hoping for.
That’s the kind of fun, poignant glimpses we received all evening, from tales of home life and motherhood to the “No Day But Today” lessons she learned from her Broadway debut in “Rent,” after celebrated composer Jonathan Larson died following the final dress rehearsal.
In a wonderful non-diva touch, Menzel began singing her “Rent” duet “Take Me or Leave Me,” then roamed the first few rows of the audience, looking for people who could join her. She found them — a mother, two young men and a female musical theater student took turns belting out the emotional song, bringing audience members to their feet. We all got to sing along with her next, taking the final theme of “No Day But Today” from an anthem to a whisper.
Moving away from her microphone, she extended that emotional journey through an a cappella version of “For Good,” from her signature “Wicked” witch role, the song in which good and evil melt away. Then of course, from behind a curtain of cheers, she soared through “Defying Gravity,” this time with her bare feet on the ground instead of flying high above the stage.
Two more encores gave us a preview of a new work in progress and the final finale, “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story.”
She thanked us for making Des Moines her home for the evening, proving once again, there’s no place like home.
- Diana Nollen