Idina Menzel World Tour 2015 at The SSE Arena, Wembley, London.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
It’s something of an understatement to say that being cast in the Disney movie Frozen (the fifth highest-grossing film in box office history) has changed the life of Tony Award-winning actress and singer Idina Menzel. While theatre fans already followed her career – particularly after she created the role of green witch Elphaba in the original Broadway and West End productions of Wicked – it is unlikely she would be touring arenas across the world without having played the role of Queen Elsa of Arendelle who so famously sang the now Oscar-winning song ‘Let It Go’.
Such a change in public profile must have been a gift and a curse for Menzel during the last year or so. While her career has taken off, and there have been invitations to appear at the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl, her vocal performances have constantly been scrutinised, not least via social media.
However, I can’t imagine these kind of critics (the ones who love to put artists down) would have been able to find anything very negative to say about Menzel’s vocal acrobatics during her concert at The SSE Arena. Despite suffering from a cold (the occasional stop to suck a throat sweet and have a sip of tea was required), her soaring notes did not disappoint – right from the powerful opener, Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’, to ‘Always Starting Over’, from her most recent Broadway show, If/Then.
It was probably Menzel’s theatre credits which produced the biggest highlights of the evening, but she also found time to acknowledge her musical influences (ranging from Ethel Merman to Joni Mitchell) and feature a few of her own compositions that a certain percentage of the audience would not have been familiar with. These included the title tracks from albums I Stand and Still I Can’t Be Still. While the sound balance between Menzel and the fine 15-piece orchestra (led by musical director Rob Mounsey) wasn’t always at its best during these numbers, they still made an impression and I will certainly be hunting out these recordings in the very near future.
The inclusion of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ may have also come as a surprise to some, but it very much contributed to Menzel opening up and connecting with her audience. She admitted that despite the professional highs during the last 12 months, there had been personal difficulties too, and even she didn’t start every day feeling in a strong ‘Defying Gravity’/‘Let It Go’-like mood.
Elsewhere, though, there was plenty to make one’s soul feel uplifted and bring a tear to the eye. Goosebump moments included Menzel reaching a crescendo with ‘The Wizard and I’ and a moving part a cappella treatment of ‘For Good’ (both, of course, from Wicked).
Best of all were two very different nods to Rent in which Menzel made her professional and Broadway debut in the role of Maureen in 1996. She recalled the rewarding journey that led to the creation of that show, and the sadness felt when its creator Jonathan Larson passed away before opening night. The quiet and tender version of ‘No Day But Today’ that followed was really something special.
The night was made particularly special for five audience members in particular when Menzel asked if anyone was interested in joining her for the big duet from Rent, ‘Take Me or Leave Me’. This really brought people to their feet as a sweet-voiced guy called Daniel and a male Elphaba clone had their moment in the spotlight, followed by a trio of women who got to strut their stuff on the arena stage (all three ladies did well, but the last one to sing had real star quality).
The only criticism I would make, and the reason this isn’t a five star review, is that the show’s staging and visuals were a little uninspiring. At its core, this was an intimate cabaret in a big room, but the size of the space and the numbers present needed to be taken in consideration. An injection of originality into the staging and some innovation with images (perhaps even of Menzel’s career so far?) and lighting would have raised the show on to another level.
While Menzel shouldn’t have to change her programme because of the young Disney fans present (and she didn’t, swearing only a few minutes in), the setting for ‘Let It Go’ could have been a lot more magical. A costume change might have made a difference too.
Still, there is no denying that the majority of those present (including, hopefully, people sitting towards the back of the auditorium) will have returned home rewarded and happy. Menzel doesn’t just appear in strong female roles onstage, she has become something of a role model in recent times, and the positive messages she sends to young girls – under so much pressure from society nowadays – are the right ones.
This musical force of nature concluded with a self-penned, touching musical message for her young son Walker, along with a song she sang as a child and still resonates today, ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie.
Not a perfect evening, but one that will leave special memories for a lot longer than just tomorrow.