You want to earn magnanimous hoopla from Houston audiences? Talk about Whataburger. Because one thing that unites Houstonians is a cult-like veneration for Honey Butter Chicken Biscuits.
Kristin Chenoweth knew this. So before the Broadway mega star sashayed onto the stage of the Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land Saturday, there was a 44-ounce Whataburger cup perched center stage on the grand piano. In a provocative but classy little sparkly black number and blindingly bedazzled knee high boots that were making their show biz debut — the kind of duds that would've made Carlene Cockburn reach for a self-righteous, bitchy Bible verse — the songbird did her thing playing right to the audience's sensibilities.
Except one thing, darling KC: In Houston, we're all about the Texans and J.J. Watt. We'll just ignore that the Cowboys made an appearance in your standup routine attributed to a lapse of judgment on the account of a busy travel schedule. Because Chenoweth acknowledged the seriousness of queso, all was forgiven.
Alongside her music director, Mary Mitchell Campbell, on the piano, the petite Oklahoma gal began with "Should I be Sweet?" from the 1932 musical Take a Chance, which she recorded in 2001 in the album Let Yourself Go. Flirtatious, fabulous, adorable and vocally powerful with a high register to kill for, Chenoweth was everything her female and gay fans (and some straight or questioning who were dragged to the theater by the former) craved. No question: This girl's classical training pays off in the intoxicating, pointed quality of her voice. But it's the control in the more intimate moments where she draws you in and makes you feel like she's singing to you and talking about your life, your problems and your truth.
As some in the industry say: Volume takes technique, but introverted artistry takes balls.
Most of the concert was dedicated to her recent release, The Art of Elegance produced by Houston native Steve Tyrell. A few songs into the recital and one thing became clear: This was a much different gig than her last in 2012 at Jones Hall, though some songs were the same. With the new suburban performing arts venue set up in its smaller configuration, the almost sold out engagement took the tenor of a relaxed cabaret.
The program did included a handful of selections filled with jazz hands hilarity such as "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady and "Tits and Ass" rewritten as "boobs" and "butts" from A Chorus Line. Because T&A has no place in a Christian girl's vocab. As a tongue-in-cheek burn to Mariah Carey's NYE train wreck, KC offered this piece of advice: "Some of us just sing, girl," which was followed by "Popular" from Wicked.
As the evening progressed, the subjects became increasingly personal and introspective, tears from the Broken Arrow-native included.
Family ties, lost love, broken heart, healing, forgiveness and religion made us ponder: Kristin, honey, is there something going on in your life that's causing you pain? I mean beyond the breakup of Andrew Pruett?
If so, Chenoweth let it out without apology, struggling sweetly to keep her composure through some of the vocal lines with deeply meaningful lyrics. Selections included "Bring Him Home" from Les Mis, a charming melange of Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind" with Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" from Follies, "A House is Not a Home" and "Heart of the Matter." Perhaps one of the most touching moments was when Chenoweth dedicated to her parents a song that was written for another couple's 50 anniversary.
Accompanied by eight students from Texas State University majoring in musical theater, Chenoweth closed the program with "I Was Here." The inspirational lyrics — "I wanna do something that matters, Say something different, Something that sets the whole world on its ear"— made something clear.
Perhaps this wasn't a concert. Given the lunacy of this weekend's events, maybe it was a therapy session.
That's if you were open enough to get the message while in line at the drive through at Whataburger.