Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth bounded onto the Tucson Music Hall stage Thursday night donning a blue Arizona Wildcats shirt over her sparkling silver gown.
The audience of just over 1,600 cheered and Chenoweth flashed them the Wildcat “WC” and a smile that sparkled as much as her gown.
Talk about endearing yourself to room full of strangers.
That’s the magic of Chenoweth, a towering star on Broadway who until Thursday had never stood on a Tucson stage. We started the evening as strangers, quickly became friends and by the end of the two-hour concert felt like family.
Family that tells its secrets like Chenoweth’s childhood dream growing up in Oklahoma to become part of the chorus in a Broadway show.
She was too short, she told us; 4-foot-11, pushing 5-foot-1 in high heels. To prove the point she sauntered over to Tucson Symphony Orchestra cellist Robert Chamberlain and had him stand. See, she said, as the 6-foot-3 Chamberlain towered over her.
Funny how life turns out, she concluded; instead of being part of the chorus, she’s the star.
With every song she sang — from Great American Songbook classics to Broadway tunes immortalized by Judy Garland and Julie Andrews — the 50-year-old Chenoweth wove in funny bits and pieces of her life story, from her early childhood spent in Phoenix until second grade to growing up in Oklahoma, where she picked up a twang that sneaks into her conversations.
She became emotional toward the end of the Jason Robert Brown love song “50 Years Long,” which Chenoweth dedicated to her parents; and again when she and her accompanist/longtime musical collaborator Mary-Mitchell Campbell performed the bilingual version of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” which they recorded on the star-studded fundraising album “Singing You Home — Children’s Songs for Family Reunification.” Proceeds from the album, which included contributions from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Josh Groban and Idina Menzel, benefit organizations that support families separated at the U.S. southern border.
Her set list traversed the Great White Way and Hollywood including “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables,” “The Sweetheart Tree” from “The Great Race” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.” There were emotional turns including the inspired collaboration with 10 University of Arizona music theater students on the gospel standard “Upon This Rock,” and humorous pit stops including the whimsical “Taylor the Latte Boy.”
Every once in a while, Chenoweth would turn toward Chamberlain and shoot him a flirty smile; at one point, she stood in front of TSO Concertmaster Lauren Roth and planted a playful kiss on her cheek. She even attempted to dance with a bass player during “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but he shook his head. So Chenoweth waltzed away to center stage and belted out the song’s final, glorious high C that hung in the air and was so soaring and pure that it made the hair on our arms stand up.
Her show was total fun, from singing along to “Popular” from her Broadway run in the original “Wicked,” to cheering loudly when she shot a 20- or 30-second Instagram live video.
Perhaps the most interesting performance of the evening, however, was the improbable country-meets-Broadway mash-up of Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” and Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind.”
“In my world growing up, Stephen Sondheim was royalty,” she said. “And also in my world growing up, Willie Nelson was royalty.”
On Thursday, Chenoweth earned the title of royalty in our world.