In the presence of a star at the Donmar

Review by Paul Nelson

MY LONG affair with cabaret goes back to seeing Kay Thompson at the old Café de Paris and since then I have loved the idea of it, the execution of it, the intimacy of it and have sadly seen the demise of it.

It has seen a major revival lately and around town the genre has seen quite a few efforts to keep that revival alive. The Studio Theatre at Wimbledon with its Sunday Specials, the Stars on Sundays at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the efforts at the Jermyn Street Theatre and Larry's Room at Pizza on the Park have all contributed.

The most publicised attempt so far has been Divas at the Donmar and its last and present attraction is Kristin Chenoweth, a petite blonde bombshell of the type that only seems to grow in America.

Miss Chenoweth is a deserved winner of a Tony Award, Drama Desk and Outer Critics' Circle Award for the role of Sally in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, as well as a Theatre World Award for Steel Pier. Winning awards seems to have become a habit.

She has a voice trained for opera, she looks a million dollars and she can belt out a song with the best in the world and it's a pity, seeing her performance at the Donmar that I don't have yet another award to give her. She was, to put it mildly, magnificent.

I think the London audience response to her all too brief appearance (it was an hour and a half) practically overwhelmed her, she was genuinely surprised and delighted when the audience simply would not let her go. Long and sustained applause went on long after her very brief recall to the stage.

The best way to describe this little powerhouse is that she has charm, wit, intelligence, looks and more talent than the auditorium could contain. Her two sets produced some memorable performances of new songs and unforgettable versions of some standards, along with a few surprises.

Chief surprise for me was a return of the Comden and Green song If from Two On the Aisle and I'm a Stranger Here Myself, from the Kurt Weill Ogden Nash musical One Touch of Venus. However, for sheer genius the two medleys, of music by Jerome Kern in the first half and Rodgers and Hart in the second, proved conclusively we were in the presence of an enormous talent. She has a sly way of moving from one song to another that both takes one by surprise and proclaims her genius.

Her sheer Broadway bash is matched by her ability to roam around a wide range of musical styles and she knocked everybody for six with Glitter and Be Gay from Candide, claiming the song, indeed it seemed she did this with each number, as her own.

Miss Chenoweth must return, and return as soon as is possible. Her immediate future is mapped out in great detail but no management can afford to let her go without at least making her an offer she cannot refuse.

Her musical director was Andrew Lippa who wrote the book, music and lyrics for Wild Party among his long list of credits and his genuine talent earned real admiration from the audience. It appeared he, too, was overwhelmed by the sheer success of the evening, almost shyly accompanying her return for a demanded encore when it was obvious she was not going to be allowed to leave the building.

When finally dragged back on to the stage after the entire backing group had quitted it, she and Lippa gave us a very moving version of the Gershwins' How Long Has This Been Going On? Whether it was from delight or from some deep memory, my eyes dimmed with emotion. It was comforting to note that when I left the theatre, my eyes were not the only ones to be unashamedly shining.

I very rarely use the word, but we had been in the presence of a star.

Divas at the Donmar starring Kristin Chenoweth with Andrew Lippa (Musical Director and piano), Dave Rose (double/electric bass), Mitch Dalton (guitar and banjo), Ian Green (drums). Presented at the Donmar Warehouse, Design by Dominic Fraser, Lighting design by Stuart Crane, Sound design by Andy Brown, season sponsored by Autograph Sound recording, One Aldwych and SAP.

Programme Act One:
Should I Be Sweet? (Youmans & DeSylva)
Going to the Dance With You (Dworsky)
Daddy (Troup)
Just an Ordinary Guy (Gordon & Hughes)
Bill / Why Was I Born? / Nobody Else But Me (Kern & PG Wodehouse & Hammerstein, Kern & Hammerstein)
I'm a Stranger Here Myself (Weill & Nash)
Two of a Kind (Lippa)
The Girl in 14G (Tesori & Scanlan)
Act Two:
Let Yourself Go (Berlin)
If You Hadn't But You Did (Styne & Comden & Green)
I Wish I Were in Love Again / My Funny Valentine (Rodgers & Hart)
Taylor (Heisler & Goldrich)
When I First Met Him (Lippa)
Glitter and Be Gay (Bernstein & Wilbur)
Encore: Till There Was You (Willson)

Click here for the Donmar Warehouse website...