I’m not one who is prone to turning into a “fanboy.” Part of my joy in seeing cabarets in the Barbara Cook series at the Kennedy Center has been the “Stars, they’re just like us!” vibe that comes from everyone’s presence in the small Terrace Theatre (or, for Mandy and Patti, the Eisenhower, a.k.a. the smallest space that could hold their collective aura). I have enjoyed looking up at that stage and seeing Broadway performers as human beings.
Whelp…sometimes the lights dim and you hear, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Megan Hilty!” and then your face locks into some gooberish, catatonic smile, where you turn to your friend and say “Oh my God…it’s Ivy Lynn!”, and that state manages to last for another 90 minutes.
Probably in large part due to my DCTS writing assignments on Smash, I would call myself a Megan Hilty fan. Ivy Lynn was one of those characters that awakened the raging musical theatre fan inside me, and makes me unapologetically love the art form and enthusiastic about what it can do. Every young man needs his diva, I suppose, and Hilty has become mine.
Opening the set was Smash, because of course it was. Starting with “Movin’ the Line” is textbook “give the people what they want”, and want it we did. Hilty’s got a killer instrument, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before. It’s one of those big, distinct, old-fashioned belts, where you can just hear the difference that great placement and strong support can make in generating sound. As fabulous and free-wheeling as it can seem, Ms. Hilty is a technician with that voice, which is why it can go all the places that it goes over the course of the evening.
And places it does go, from the brass of classic big band fare like “The Best is Yet to Come” and “That’s Life” (another Smash throwback), to the contemporary fare like “Be a Man” and “Heart of the Matter”, drawn from her recent album release It Happens All the Time (click here to buy it on iTunes). Hilty’s performance is one of those that can completely shift modes, but every time it lands on something new it feels equally adept. It’s impressive that a voice so specific can also be so versatile.
Highlights among the primary set include a smooth mashup of “Autumn Leaves” with “When October Goes” (the latter of which is fast becoming standard in cabarets like this one), her Judy moment with “The Man that Got Away”, and the aforementioned “That’s Life”, sung as a duet with smooth-voiced pianist Matt Cusson.
Aside from Cusson, Hilty’s cabaret drew even more energy than usual from her strong backup band. Besides Cusson’s dexterous jazz playing, we also had the backbone of Ryan Hoagland’s drum and Brian Gallagher’s guitar. When Gallagher first started playing, his strength and musicianship immediately jumped out, where I actually ended up thinking, “Wait…this guitarist is amazing. Something is up here.”
Turns out something was indeed up…Mr. Gallagher is also Mr. Hilty, and Mr. Father to Baby Hilty. A significant portion of the charm of the evening came from the rapport between him, his wife, and their bell-pepper-sized daughter (thanks, pregnancy apps!). The couple dueted on “Suddenly Seymour”, putting an unusual acoustic folk-y spin on the Ashman/Menken classic which I actually kind of dug. Mr. Gallagher’s got quite the versatile voice as well, and I could easily see myself enjoying a full evening of his pop sensibilities and sharp guitar-picking.
Besides the music, he was quick to offer up side comments and jokes throughout the concert, mostly about the breakup song-heavy nature of Hilty’s album (“We’re fine!”, she memorably asserted) and the amusing subtext of some of her raunchier numbers being sung by a pregnant woman. No song gained more ex-post-baby hilarity than “Popular”, her first encore and a nice reminder that Megan Hilty’s original claim to fame was as the rockstar replacement in the Wicked company.
Throughout the night, there wasn’t a dud in the line-up (though I think tastes will probably vary on “Suddenly Seymour”), and I find myself wishing to mention everything she sang because each thing was individually so great. Ok, fine: excuse me as I prattle on a bit more about how “Second Hand White Baby Grand” was just microcosm musical theatre perfection, how an endlessly encored “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a perfect closer for a star like her, and how enlisting an audience member to shoot iPhone video of you and your husband singing “Rainbow Connection” to your unborn child is the scientifically engineered perfect way to make a 20-30something cry.
Megan Hilty is the real deal right now, a bonafide, obsession-worthy diva of the musical theatre, with reserves of craft to back up that enormous presence of hers. Whether onstage or onscreen, we can count ourselves lucky that she’s out there producing, and I can’t wait to see what she’s got coming next. Besides the baby, which I’m sure will be adorable. I mean, geez, look at those parents.
– Barbara Cook’s Spotlight: Megan Hilty was in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center, May 2, 2014.
As for the Spotlight Series, get ready for next year! Here’s who is on deck:
October 31, 2014: Faith Prince (always and forever my Miss Adelaide)
December 5, 2014: Andrea McArdle (yup, Annie)
January 9, 2015: Michael Swift…er, I mean Will Chase (so excellent in The Mystery of Edwin Drood recently)
February 13, 2015: LaChanze (Once on this Island, The Color Purple, that random mid-nineties revival of Company)
March 27, 2015: Cult-musical hero Malcolm Gets (A New Brain, Lucky Stiff, that random mid-nineties revival of Merrily We Roll Along, television’s Caroline in the City)
See you all there, I hope!