She names Dolly Parton and Tom Hanks among her good friends. Tony and Emmy awards sit on her mantelpiece at home. Even Queen Elizabeth is a big fan of her vast showbiz talents.
It is, of course, Kristin Chenoweth.
I say of course. I hadn’t actually heard of the star before being asked to review her one-off, debut show at the Royal Albert Hall this week. Despite being five-foot-nothing in height, Chenoweth is a heavyweight of stage and screen – and I’m left questioning how the hell I missed her?
The evening saw this firecracker of a performer take fans through her journey of life, laughter and everlasting passion for musical theatre. Effortlessly, Chenoweth has transitioned between stage, film and television during her accomplished career spanning three decades. If you’ve had a pulse in that time (I must have been dead), you’ll recognise her for roles in Pushing Daisies, The West Wing and Glee, as well as guest appearances on American Idol and the star role of Glinda in hit musical Wicked.
With a career firmly rooted on Broadway, this is a woman whose belting falsetto range and irresistibly cheeky personality truly deserves the three standing ovations she’s awarded on the night; one just for walking on stage.
‘I like it here,” Chenoweth says, humbled by the response.
Giggles turned to light tears as her opening applause continued past the minute-mark. She called her emotions a case of ‘real American sh*t’, adding that the Royal Albert Hall had been a dream of hers since she was a little girl.
The London debut was a case of ‘third time lucky’ for the West End star, following two cancelled appearances – one due to set equipment falling on her during rehearsals, the other due to not having a visa (…she encouraged us to see the funny side). Her ‘cutesy’ mannerisms, stereotypical of her Oklahoma origins, mixed with womanly confidence embedded in her every movement, makes her born watchable.
The first half of the show, although a little slow for those not familiar with early theatre, reintroduced fans with Chenoweth’s hilarious sense of humour (including stories of her singing for the Queen and mistaking the Head Of The Guards for the waiter), entwined with magical bursts of some of her favourite songs. “Every song you hear tonight means something to me,” she says before performing powerful renditions of ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret, Burt Backarach’s ‘One Bell Less To Answer’ and others hits from Glee – in which she ironically played April Rhodes, a failed Broadway star and recurring alcoholic.
The lady isn’t simply a bona fide professional, but is surrounded by bona fide professionals – all gagging to share her stage. Les Misérables’ leading man Jean Valjean Peter Lockyer joined her in a passionate performance of ‘Bring Him Home’. Later, she teamed with singing powerhouse Alison Jiear of Jerry Springer the Opera fame in a disco-heavy injection of ‘Enough is Enough’, which brought the whole Hall to its feet.
Theatre fans’ dreams came true in the second half (cue standing ovation number two), when Kerry Ellis – Wicked’s first British Elphaba, known for her whopping rendition of Defying Gravity (which went super-viral on YouTube) – joined Chenoweth to sing ‘For Good’. Not a dry eye in the house, I tell you.
There was even a virtual collaboration. Her best ‘bud’ Dolly Parton – another bolshy blonde from America’s Deep South – appeared on a pre-recorded video, engaging in ‘girl chat’ with Chenoweth (men, careers and fried chicken were hot topics), offering a delicious introduction to the theatrically performed, and very funny, ‘What Would Dolly Do?’
In this autobiographical display, the star played tribute to her Christian faith with gospel hymn ‘Upon This Rock’, merging it with a religiously liberal tribute to her predominantly gay fanbase. “I love my gays [and] I don’t believe you are sinners,” she laughs (met with whoops from the male-dominant audience). “For those who aren’t religious, the song will be over in four minutes! Shalom. Yes, I Love Buddha too!”
Dressed in an elaborate, and lung-confining, white cocktail dress (one that causes her to snort after her jokes), she talks of the legacy she wishes to leave behind: “Don’t do anything you don’t love. If you have a burning desire, please go for it. I got rejected every day in my early career. Some things just aren’t meant for you, but you keep going.”
There are very few theatre-land folk who can transfer so easily between multi-media platforms in this way. Holding an audience as a solo performer in London’s most iconic venue is another testament to this classically-trained and excitable songstress. Between high-fiving backing singers and airing her love for her ‘musical soul mates’ in the band, Chenoweth entertains the audience in a purposefully clumsy, yet classy and adorable way.
‘I Will Always Love You’, brings a heartfelt conclusion to a momentous evening. Cue standing ovation number three. Well deserved, Chenoweth.