Holy crap, I’m seeing Patina Miller in here?!
This was my first thought walking into the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre Friday night. Though still large enough to devour many of DC’s venues whole, the Terrace is shockingly small in scope. At 513 seats, this was going to be a very up-close-and-personal visit from the rising star.
I love cabaret because it’s a rare chance to strip away the separating veneer between a performer and their audience. It gives us a chance to go, “oh, there’s Patina Miller, human being, right there a few feet in front of me, just singing and hanging out.”
Right from her first entrance, the shell was down, and she had a positively charming look of genuine surprise at the turnout for the event. Let’s remember that Ms. Miller is, more or less, a new star. Sister Act was her breakout role only a couple of years ago, and Pippin, now running, won her her first Tony nomination and subsequently reminded us that the first big gig was no fluke. “This is my first concert!”, she reminds us. And after thinking about it for a second in disbelief…yeah, this would be her first one, wouldn’t it?
That was the palpable sense in the room – here we are, at the start of something. Patina Miller is newly minted as a Broadway leading lady, and while this was her first solo concert, it will undoubtedly not be the last.
I won’t talk too much about the set list, on the off-chance that some of you are able to catch her down the line, and surprise song choices are half the fun of these gatherings. What I will say, though, is that she sings everything you want her to, plus a varied and fun set of other material. The arrangements run into every corner of the jazz canon (so much so that while I recognized iconic sounds, I don’t know nearly enough terminology to say more than that bossa nova was one of them). Cabaret is the last bastion of the snappy jazz arrangement. No complaints from me.
Okay, a brief sampling of some of my favorite moments: opening the cabaret with a multi-section rendition of “Sing Happy,” one of my favorite Kander and Ebb songs, where she moved through several different styles in a beautiful arc. An absolutely gorgeous “Someone to Watch Over Me” (despite the pop/jazz energy of most of the music, Ms. Miller is every inch a musical theatre performer with her perfect sentence/acting beat phrasing). Samples from significant shows in her career, including her twelve year old debut in Annie – as an adult character at theatre camp, of course. An arrangement of “No One is Alone” from an all-African American Sondheim revue which was her first professional gig. A medley from Hair, where she was a company member in the 40th anniversary production. And, of course, two songs from Sister Act. Needless to say, “Fabulous Baby” rocked the house.
Those arrangements, and the tight musical ensemble, were a major highlight of the evening. Credit piano player and music director James Sampliner, along with the rest of his quartet for the evening: John Benthal on guitar, Rich Mercurio on drums, and Mark Vanderpoel on bass. These are four highly skilled musicians up there, meshing together, and just killin’ it.
Also killin’ it was, oh yeah, the star of the evening, Ms. Miller. Like I said before, she was open, personable, and ready to share personal stories from her journey from nine-year-old dreamer to Broadway star. There’s a reason this kind of structure is a staple of cabaret, as it gives opportunity for personal context and intimate subtext beyond just singing the songs.
Her voice is incredibly versatile, jumping from poignant whisper to cutsie-poo comedic readings to power belting to pop riffing effortlessly. And let me quickly elaborate on that effortlessness, since it’s a critical cliché. These choices just happen, as part of her expression of the song, tools at the ready, the hallmark of true skill. And even though she’s just “playing herself” in cabaret, her talent as an actor remains in use, creating just so much marvelous specificity in each number.
One other thing I can reveal is that the evening had an air of genuine spontaneity to it. The set list was prepped, of course. The stories and cues, rehearsed, though shared with the looseness you’d want from that. There was an encore. But then Ms. Miller got to learn firsthand why you always pack a second encore. The result was theatre magic, as she and Mr. Sampliner, obviously a longtime colleague and friend, scrambled through the book trying to figure out a second tune. The serendipity with which this tied with one of her stories was just icing on the cake…and sure, you reading this at home can’t help but think, of COURSE that was planned. But if that was planned, that was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life. And naturally, the second encore was just as awesome as everything else that evening.
I’m at a loss for what exactly I’m promoting in a review of a one-and-done affair like this. If you get a chance to see Ms. Miller in concert down the line, by all means, yes, do it! And as for the Barbara Cook Spotlight series: what a gift. Lucie Arnaz is coming up next, and you’d better believe that woman has got stories.
Perhaps the best thing I can say is this: at the end of the event, I just wanted to rush home and start pulling music off my shelf, packing my own book, and searching for my own venue just so I could sing and tell stories and have the kind of ball that Patina Miller looked like she was having. The joy was infectious, and I was infected.
Go see some cabaret, folks.
The Patina Miller concert was part of the Barbara Cook Spotlight at The Kennedy Center, December 6, 2013.