Elaine Paige is a rarity among the many that tread the boards on Broadway and the West End not only in terms of her sheer vocal power, but also a power of a different sort – her staying power.
Often dubbed ‘The First Lady of Musical Theatre,’ her stage career has spanned more than forty years. She’s played –and even originated – some of the great roles for ‘ladies who belt,’ including Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Eva Perón in Evita, Grizabella in Cats, and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard along with many more.
Despite her long association with Andrew Lloyd Webber, she may be best known to the DC theatergoing crowd for her association with the vastly different Stephen Sondheim. Under the direction of Washington’s own Eric Schaeffer, she dazzled Kennedy Center audiences with her turn as Carlotta in Follies, later reprising that role on Broadway.
She’s a ‘Broadway Baby’ indeed and proved that again at the legendary Birchmere musical hall on Thursday evening. Let’s just say the standing ovations weren’t limited to the final moments of the concert and they certainly weren’t the obligatory kind.
Accompanied on piano by her equally talented musical director Christopher Marlowe, Ms. Paige’s set list largely included those songs that have made her famous amongst musical theatre aficionados. While I was slightly disappointed that many of the song choices were predictable – from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and “Memory” to “With One Look” and “I Know Him So Well” – as a younger American who never had a chance to see her in Evita, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, and Chess respectively, I did appreciate having the opportunity to see her revisit those memorable songs in such an intimate venue as the Birchmere.
Even though there was more sound amplification than perhaps was needed, it was thrilling to see her command the stage. She certainly did not walk through the performance even though she could have easily rested on her laurels. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” alone proved that she’s a vocal powerhouse who gives every ounce of herself in performing any number no matter how many times she’s done it.
Still, a few of the more unexpected moments left an even greater impression on me. The comedic “Small Packages” allowed her to poke fun at the huge disconnect between her height/small frame and her huge voice. Ms. Paige’s performance of this little ditty, which composers George Stiles and Anthony Drewe wrote specifically for her, gave the audience a taste of why she’s had such a long stage acting career.
To be sure, she has a tremendously full and textured voice, but being an extraordinary singer is usually not enough if one wants to truly, truly achieve legend status on Broadway or the West End.
Another highlight came in the form of Kander and Ebb’s “All that Jazz” (from Chicago). Resisting the temptation to full out belt the entire song, she delivered a jazzy and interesting rendition of the familiar tune. I particularly appreciated her unique phrasing.
Although it was clear that the audience certainly came to hear her sing, sing and sing some more, she delivered much more than just songs. She delightfully relayed stories of her humble beginnings in flop shows like Maybe That’s Your Problem, considered the ‘risks’ of performing in a show such as Hair, and recalled how she got the part of Grizabella in the London premiere of Cats after Judi Dench had to recuse herself.
No matter the story, she was charming and down-to-earth, and proved to be more than capable of handling such an intimate and relaxed venue where the audience gives just as much as it takes. This is particularly impressive when one considers that she’s played some of the largest halls around the world.
It’s truly a treat for DC theatre lovers that Ms. Paige has returned to our area. We can only hope she has an excuse to return here again soon whether in concert or in a full production.
Elaine Paige gave a one-night-only performance at the Birchmere – 3701 Mt. Vernon Avenue in Alexandria, VA – on March 7, 2013. Visit her official website for information on upcoming concert dates. For information on other upcoming concerts at the Birchmere, visit the venue’s official webpage.