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Idina Menzel – Apollo Theatre, London

Production: Speckulation Entertainment

Musical Director: Rob Mounsey

Reviewer: Lucy Thackray

[rating:5]

Idina Menzel, best known for originating the rôles of Maureen in RENT and Elphaba in Wicked (for which she won the best actress in a musical Tony Award) seems genuinely fond of London. Since opening Wicked here in the West End in 2006, Menzel returned last year to perform with Marvin Hamlisch and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, and this year takes over the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue for a week before moving on to dates in Manchester and Edinburgh (which, like any true Yank, she has trouble pronouncing).

The London show, while featuring a horde of talented UK musicians as well as Idina’s core band from New York, is a much more fun and intimate outing than last year’s. Though she proved herself more than capable of filling the lofty Royal Albert Hall, in the modest Apollo she kicks off her shoes, bounces up and down in her strapless gown, leaps off the stage to wander about the audience and has a real laugh with the adoring crowd. For nothing pulls London’s loud and stagey types like a Broadway star, and the audience was almost as entertaining as the headliner – audible gasps as showtune intros were played, tears and even some audience participation. But more of that later.

Idina sparkles and fizzes with charisma, wearing her heart on her sleeve (she tells the crowd she had an argument with her husband earlier on and was ‘so bummed’ when she came out to perform). She hid it well, though, as her distinctive voice built and soared with each number, showcasing the big Broadway favourites as well as some more personal to her. Though the main vibe is big band glamour, there are several moving moments as Idina talks about the death of Marvin Hamlisch, the ‘father figure’, mentor and, until this year, her conductor for this type of show. She sings At the Ballet from A Chorus Line, which she performed at Hamlisch’s funeral, and your heartstrings won’t fail to be pulled by her gutsy rendition of What I Did For Love. Three numbers from her biggest hit, Wicked, are present and correct, but the real fun comes with her upbeat performance of Take Me or Leave Me from RENT.

This is the point at which Menzel goes for a wander to find an audience member to duet with. Four lucky folks give it their best – luckily this gamble comes off as hilarious karaoke rather than a cringey X Factor moment – and are obviously overjoyed to be inches from their idol (who seems oblivious, hugging freely and egging them on). Menzel gets to show her sense of fun and mischief in this show, with a lot of banter as well as singing. She delivers an interesting anecdote about stage fright and how seeing performing as interactive can take away the fear and, though you can’t believe Ms Menzel ever felt nervous stepping into the spotlight, the exchange of love between her and her fans is the certainly the focus of this show.

A couple of surprises – a gorgeous original track, a stunning version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and a brand new number by Next to Normal writers Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt – shake things up a bit, but the musical theatre songs most associated with Menzel are the ones that take your breath away. The most lovable thing about her is that, despite a fawning fanbase, she doesn’t take herself too seriously: sucking on lozenges, jumping around and responding to heckles with charm. Her powerhouse, non-stop set is a whirlwind of theatre, standards and pop, but everything given a show-stopping orchestral makeover and tons of attitude. A must-see for fans of Idina Menzel or musical theatre but, above all, a masterclass in great performance.

Runs until 14th October at the Apollo, then shows at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on 16th and Manchester’s Palace Theatre on 17th October.

Read our interview with Idina Menzel from last year.

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