Metro Weekly

Idina Menzel's new album is a delightful escape into her songbook

Barefoot and Excellent

Remember Idina Menzel’s attempts at pop stardom? Just as well if you don’t. She’s released a total of three forgettable pop albums, though only her 2008 set I Stand charted. (That was after her Tony-winning star turn in Wicked.)

Here’s hoping the wonderful soprano and veritable Broadway star sticks to what she went to New York University for and keeps her focus on the Great White Way – or at least cabaret.

In fact, she’s apparently in the early stages of originating a new role on Broadway. In the meantime, aside from her recurring role on Glee, Menzel has just released her fourth official recording (not counting her show soundtracks). Live: Barefoot at the Symphony is a recording of her symphonic cabaret performed at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, with Marvin Hamlisch conducting a 52-piece orchestra plus a few additional musicians, including pianist and arranger Rob Mounsey. Her husband and fellow performer Taye Diggs even comes out to sing one duet. And as the title suggests, she performs barefoot; heels were apparently a hindrance.

Anyone who caught Menzel’s show with Hamlisch and the NSO Pops at Wolf Trap two summers ago will be familiar with the material on this CD – and the related DVD and PBS special. And if you missed that performance, you’ll get another chance this summer, when she returns to the great outdoor venue with the NSO pops.

Even for just an everyday admirer of Menzel’s talent, Live: Barefoot at the Symphony is a treat. It’s a delightful escape into her varied songbook, which ranges from Rent to Wicked to Glee, plus a few pop culture detours, from Jimmy Webb to Annie. She tells amusing stories to set up songs, from the huge crush she had on her gay musical theater teacher, to how she got cast on the hit Fox show. From Glee she performs one of the first songs she sang with Lea Michele, who plays her biological daughter on the show. Lady Gaga’s ”Poker Face” may be an odd choice for a mother-daughter duet, as Menzel points out, especially with its talk about ”bluffin’ with my muffin.” But it works here, revealing Menzel’s quirky side but also framing her in a big, orchestral arrangement – making something silly a little closer to sublime.

Live: Barefoot at the Symphony
Concord Jazz

Menzel comes across as immensely personable in her onstage banter. She even throws jabs at Beyoncé and her idol Barbra Streisand, in context of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. She jokingly calls Beyoncé a bitch for essentially stealing from Menzel the Hamlisch-penned ”The Way We Were” as her tribute to Babs. Naturally, the real bitch is Babs, who sits at the same table as Menzel and Diggs after the show but can only bring herself to pay Menzel a half-hearted compliment for performing ”Don’t Rain On My Parade.” ”You were good,” she says.

She was more than good, of course. There’s no raining on this parade.

Download These: ”The Professor,” ”Funny Girl/Don’t Rain on My Parade”

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.