I’ve loved a lot of shows that closed too early, but I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything as much as the two men at my table loved The Prom. During Beth Leavel’s thrilling concert at Feinstein’s/54 Below recently, these gents knew every word and gesture of Leavel’s two big songs from that show (“It’s Not About Me” and “The Lady’s Improving”) and they squealed with delight after every joke or high note. But it wasn’t just them, it was the whole room. Every other seat in the place was filled with acolytes of The Prom.
In a pretty straightforward cabaret, Leavel walked us through her career highlights, singing songs and telling tales. Leavel calls herself a “storyteller,” not an actress or a singer or, as someone from the audience shouted, “an icon”. But she is also all of those things. “Storyteller” is a term favored by someone she listed as her ultimate inspiration, Liza Minnelli. Minnelli’s attention to lyrics and the way her body responds to music as she’s singing are apparent in Leavel.
In two of Rose’s songs from Gypsy (a role she played last summer in St. Louis), Leavel ripped into the lyrics, finding the humor and the intensity in the same beat. She left it all on the stage and was breathless as the back-to-back juggernauts reached their conclusion. Then she asked us if anyone was interested in another revival of Gypsy in New York. After a performance like that, how could we say no?
She also premiered a song from the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada in which she’ll play the titular demon, Miranda Priestly. The song (with music by Elton John and lyrics by Shaina Taub) was about a woman choosing between her personal life and her career and it led nicely into the second half of Leavel’s concert in which she opened up about her being a mother of two as well as a bona fide stage star. She sang a medley of Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” and “Children Will Listen” as a protective anthem to both her boys and the younger generation of musical theatre actors. Leavel often plays characters that are spinning wildly outside reality, but in these quiet, moments, she shows that there is real heart and passion inside her, and she is capable of being extraordinarily moving.
The highlight of the evening was Leavel’s rendition of “As We Stumble Along” from The Drowsy Chaperone, the drunken powerhouse anthem that won her a Tony in 2006. I dragged my grandparents to see Chaperone for Sutton Foster, but remember being thunderstruck by Leavel. It was a treat, then, to revisit this performance over thirteen years later and see that it’s just as mesmerizing as an adult. Even divorced of context, Leavel inhabits each measure of the music. The notes come forward with a muscle-memory easiness. This is her song and it feels like a miracle to be in the same room with her as she shares it.
How I feel about The Drowsy Chaperone is how everyone around me felt about The Prom, though. It was like being at a concert at Madison Square Garden – the roar was beyond deafening. If Mary-Louise Parker were still upstairs, she would also have heard it and come down to ask us to shut up. I was neutral on The Prom, though I freely admit that Leavel was incredible. But, of course she was. There and here, she is a colossal talent and it’s a joy to be in such close proximity to her in this intimate evening.