A moment to add to my list of Things I’ll Never Forget: Kristin Chenoweth’s last note in “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables,” which she sang as part of an extraordinary concert performance Friday night at the Saroyan Theatre. As the spotlight on the Broadway and TV star slowly faded to black, that intensely held, startlingly high final note seemed to hang somewhere between illumination and darkness, its thrilling resonance — so gentle but yet so sure — infusing the hall with its own warm, golden glow.
Chills? You bet. I’ve heard lots of divas in my time, and this was the most charming live concert I’ve ever experienced. Chenoweth’s voice was brilliant, no surprise, and her acting exquisite as she worked through an eclectic mix of musical-theater, gospel, pop and country songs. But more than that, she built an intense emotional connection with the audience. At times funny, plaintive, spiritual, topical and down-to-earth, she gave Fresno an unforgettable evening.
Taking the stage with her own rhythm and percussion section, along with a handful of talented members of the Fresno Grand Opera orchestra — all led by the first-rate musical director Mary Mitchell Campbell on piano — the Oklahoma native soared on such tunes as Kander and Ebb’s “Maybe This Time,” bringing a subtlety and empathy to the lyrics that made me really listen to them anew. She shared her Christian faith in an exhilarating gospel rendition of “Upon This Rock.” She played tribute to country great Dolly Parton in an amusing ditty titled “What Would Dolly Do”?” (Her three ensemble cast members, all Broadway veterans, assisted in that song by holding up signs that spelled out “W W DD?”)
“Wicked” fans got their red meat, too. (Chenoweth originated the role of Glinda on Broadway.) In a sure-fire crowd pleaser, she incorporated lyrics from foreign productions into “Popular,” which she redubbed “Glinda Around the World.”
And she chatted amiably with the audience, even making the inevitable call-out to the host city (“People are so nice here — it’s like being in Oklahoma,” she said, holding a giant drink from In-N-Out Burger, which she flocks to when she comes to California) sound genuine. Throughout the show she teased the story of her recent serious accident on the set of the TV series “The Good Wife,” repeatedly telling the crowd “We’ll get to that — oh, we WILL get to that.” When she finally did, she related what happened in July when a piece of lighting equipment fell 35 feet on her from above, causing a skull fracture and other injuries.
It’s the lesson she drew from the experience, and not the accident itself, that made her recollection so memorable. She is thankful for being alive, and her concert was steeped in that joy for life.
Besides “Bring Him Home,” two other moments are branded upon my brain. One is a personal thing. When I interviewed Chenoweth on the phone to advance her concert, I started off by telling her my favorite song of hers: “Taylor the Latte Boy,” about a woman with a crush on her local Starbucks barrista. So of course I was excited when she sang it. When she delivered Taylor’s dialogue in the song — shifting from her sweet vocals to spoken word as he grunts “How are you” to the woman — I got a big, stupid grin on my face that couldn’t be wiped off, even in the name of reviewer restraint.
And then there was her performance of “For Good,” also from “Wicked.” Chenoweth asked for a volunteer from the audience to come up on stage to join her in a duet, and she selected a young woman named Kimber. (When Chenoweth asked her volunteer if she liked musical theater, Kimber said coyly, “I do, and you’re kind of my idol.”) Though Kimber forgot a few words of the song — and who wouldn’t up in front of a couple of thousand people? — she recovered nicely, and the resulting duet with her idol was sweet and thrilling. Chenoweth made her — and us — feel like the most important people in the world at that moment. On a magical night at the Saroyan, I do believe the audience was changed for the better.