|Idina Menzel. Picture: Robin Wong|
The lights go down, the band starts playing, and then through the darkness a voice starts singing and shivers go up my spine.
I’m sitting in the Apollo Theatre, where Broadway legend Idina Menzel is performing as part of a week long residency.
She starts with Somewhere Over the Rainbow, singing the famous lines while we in the crowd desperately try to work out where she is.
And then, suddenly, she’s bouncing, actually bouncing like Tigger, out onto the stage looking gorgeous in a ballgown with bare feet, a look she’s become known for.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow seagues into The Wizard And I from Wicked, which is a song I absolutely love, but is often overlooked or put aside so crowd favourite Defying Gravity can be performed instead. It’s a great choice, and with its powerful notes really gets the crowd smiling.
I saw Menzel last year at the Royal Albert Hall, a venue that’s at least 10 times the size of the Apollo. She had no problem filling the Hall with her voice, but seeing her in a more intimate venue also works.
Most people would probably expect a musical theatre actress like Menzel to spend most of her concert performing show tunes, but she surprises by singing a host of songs from a host of genres – from the Barbra Streisand classic Don’t Rain on My Parade (which she sang at the Royal Albert Hall) to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now to U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.
Peppered in between the songs are stories about Menzel’s life and career, and I appreciated the fact that she didn’t repeat any of the tales she told last year, even though she performed a few of the same numbers.
Some of her anecdotes are funny, some poignant, some both. One sees Menzel refer to her friend and mentor Marvin Hamlisch, who died recently and who conducted the Royal Philharmonic when she performed with them last year.
She speaks about his influence on her, before performing At The Ballet from A Chorus Line, which Menzel says she sang at Hamlisch’s funeral at the request of his family. She finishes the segment with another tale about Hamlisch and how he was a mentor to her, and allowed her to sit at the piano bench with him and sing. A bench is brought out and Menzel sits herself down, leaving a space where Hamlisch would have been, and sings an emotional rendition of What I Did For Love.
Happier moments come when Menzel sings Take Me Or Leave Me from Rent, the musical which was her first Broadway show (she also sings No Day But Today). In a great moment of crowd interaction three members of the audience are picked at random to sing Take Me Or Leave Me with Menzel. They rush out of the crowd, and include a girl who can’t be more than 13 and has a voice that more than stands up to Menzel’s – definitely a star of the future. I have to admit I’m more than a bit jealous of the singers, not just because they get to perform with Menzel, but because when I sing I sound like 10 cats yowling while 20 people run their fingernails down a blackboard.
Happily, she performs her version of Love For Sale mixed with Roxanne, which I will never get tired of hearing her sing, as well as Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes and snippets of Katy Perry’s Firework and Beyonce’s Single Ladies, which are great fun.
As well as well known standards Menzel performs two original numbers, both of which are touching, plus the afore-mentioned Defying Gravity. From Wicked she also sings For Good in tribute to the crowd, and is forced back on stage for an encore which ends with her “favourite song ever”, Somewhere from West Side Story, with its lyrics: “There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us”.
The standing ovation that greets Menzel shows her fans have found their place – right there cheering her on.
•Idina Menzel is at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, until Sunday, October 14.