Though she paused for only one costume change, Idina Menzel was an even greater study in multiple personalities during her solo Radio City Music Hall debut than in her current dual role in the musical “If/Then.” In between her two ubiquitous girl-power showtunes, “Defying Gravity” and the Oscar-winning “Let it Go,” the Broadway diva refashioned herself as a sultry torch singer, grungy indie rocker chick and even an ’80s pop balladeer, making for an uneven but generally entertaining evening of song that suggested there are few risks Menzel isn’t willing to take, even when caution might prove a virtue. The singer’s rabid fans (some of whom arrived carrying placards, and erupted into multiple standing ovations) hardly noticed the rough patches, but Menzel’s solo act could stand some fine tuning if she plans to take it on the road.
Taking to the stage in a shimmering, strapless, black-and-silver gown, Menzel seemed slightly agog at the sheer breadth of the Radio City stage (“You can’t do this at CBGB!”) and the cavernous reaches of the hall (“This is fucking huge!”), a mixture of sincerity and shtick that she maintained for much of the two-hour performance. Acknowledging the mild absurdity of being a teen idol at age 43, the brassy Long Island native (whose stage demeanor could be described as part Bette Midler, part Tony Soprano) cautioned parents of her younger fans to “hold their ears so I can do my thing,” shortly after confiding that the sold-put crowd surely contained at least five guys that she made out with in high school.
Flanked by a 34-piece orchestra under the musical direction of pianist Rob Mounsey, Menzel brought a big, booming sound to the likes of “Brave” (from her 2007 studio album, “I Stand”) and Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” the latter evolving into an unexpected but deft medley with The Police’s “Roxanne.” The singer delved further into the pop catalogue for a stirring rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now,” and looked to her own humble origins with “Still I Can’t Be Still,” the underwhelming title track from her 1998 debut album, which Menzel recalled performing in a Philadelphia club to a sparse crowd of teenage “Rent” fans attending with their parents. Rounding out the show’s first half, Menzel paid homage to a fellow diva, Ethel Merman, with a boisterous medley of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything Goes” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
Throughout the night, Menzel seemed slightly stymied by the demands of belting out song after song in a concert setting, stretching out the beats between numbers with lots of off-the-cuff chatter that included tossing throat lozenges into the crowd and reminiscing about her early days as a wedding singer. Elsewhere, the show felt under-rehearsed (perhaps understandably, given Menzel’s current Broadway performance schedule), especially during a lengthy “intermission” section in which the singer asked the audience to remain seated while she changed her costume onstage, pretended to place a phone call to her four-year-old son in L.A., and lamented the difficulties of performing “happy” songs when things aren’t going great in your own life. The eventual payoff, a somewhat strained rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” sung by Menzel while curled up on a prop sofa, seemed hardly worth all the fuss.
But by the time Menzel was turning her signature “Rent” number, “Take Me Or Leave Me,” into an impromptu duet with random audience members, she’d clearly gotten her mojo back, and proceeded to barrel on through a lively if schizophrenic set list that ranged from a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (complete with her own approximation of Youssou N’Dour’s Wolof-language verses), a track from her forthcoming Christmas album, and an a capella version of the “Wicked” number “For Good.” In another overextended bit, Menzel, who lost this year’s Tony award for best actress in a musical to “Beautiful” star Jessie Mueller, delivered her unread Tony acceptance speech while victoriously clutching a bottle of beer. Few, though, could contest her dedication of the “award” to “anyone out there trying to write an original musical from scratch.”
After leaving the stage, Menzel returned for a three-song encore accompanied by “If/Then” composer Tom Kitt, who joined her on piano for the show’s “You Learn to Live Without.” She then bid adieu with a lovely two-fer, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” — which, whatever the fate of this particular one-woman show, is something you musical theater fans can safely bet on.