Annaleigh Ashford At The Appel Room, Lincoln Center, Tuesday December 19th, 2018, Reviewed
If you were so inclined, you could draw a straight line from Judy Holliday to Barbra Streisand through Kristin Chenowith to Annaleigh Ashford: top musical comedy women on Broadway; beautiful women but off-center, quirky absurdists with immense talent. Sadly, Judy died at the age of 43 from breast cancer, however in the past two years I’ve seen Streisand and Chenowith in concert, and last night I watched a taping of Ashford at the gorgeous Appel room for “Live At Lincoln Center,” to be aired on PBS next Spring. And she did mention Judy, just the wrong Judy.
With the opportunity to put the stamp on her credentials, Ashford punted. Opening with a disco medley in honor of “Studio 54,” she sang it well as far as it goes, and played it for laughs without being a joke, her problem with disco is similar to Anne Marie’s with EDM: they aren’t a singer’s medium. Perhaps, if it was a 120 minute show instead of half that length, and if she had performed closer to the middle of the evening, it would have been alright, but it was just a not good idea. She could have performed “The History Of Wrong Guys,” after all Ashford was the original Lauren in “Kinky Boots”… or something off “Wicked” where she stepped into Glinda on Broadway, but ten minutes of disco? She followed that with… “Love Hurts”? This begs an answer to the musical question: what exactly is Ashley playing at? If you were at the Appel Room to start with, the chances are excellent you knew who Ashford is, and if you are watching the show at home, it would make much more sense to present yourself and your material from your catalog. Not only do we want to hear them, they are also a better fit.
Instead, she kept throwing zingers with the Mr. Rogers “You Are My Friend” -sweet and well sung but baffling in context. After an overlong anecdote about her dance mentor, Annaleigh sang a song by the other Judy off “Judy Garland At Carnegie Hall, Karaoke”, “Come Rain Or Come Shine” interspersed with “Over The Rainbow”. It was the first of three showstoppers. Ashford also performed two Sondheim numbers, a proforma “Children Will Listen” and a jawdropping reunited with Jake Gyllenhaal “Move On”. the 2017 revival of “Sunday In The Park With George” was so very good, and it was a joy to see them together again. Annaleigh played it straight as an arrow though not for the final highlight, a wonderful, audience participation take on Alanis Morrissette’s “Hand In Pocket”. I haven’t mentioned the band, a seven piece orchestra lead by music director/orchestrator Will Van Dyke, and quite good at dance, Broadway musicals, country, and soft rock. I also have noted that she performed a whole lotta schtick between songs, and sure, it was a touch Hollywood Squares but she got away with it.
The ending was the worst, sincerity is a very iffy attribute and once you get past Lennon nearly everybody looks like a schmuck when they wanna kumbaya us. The last thing the world needs is another cover of “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” and even if it did need it, it didn’t need more New York centricness from the woman, who looked hot in a glittery silver cocktail dress and a shiny red sparkling number. She followed it with the bathetic “If We Only Had Love” -that song is a tough nut to crack and Ashford is terrible at sincerity in that sense. In the midst of a Sondheim musical she is a great actress, and holds her own in a line of excellence dating to the 1940s, but when she has to transfer that emotionalism into a musical sermon, she lacks credibility. Broadway singers love Brel because every emotion is so large, so on your sleeve, it bursts the seams of the song. Annaleigh is better playing smaller. I saw her as a featured actor on CBS’ “God Friended Me” the other day, and her obtuse charm, her on the spectrum mild autism vibe, worked wonders: she was great in an understated otherworldiness. For the last song of the evening, we were handed flashlights for a thousand points of light Godhead song and it was simply not right. I bolted.
Annaleigh is a wonderful singer, performer, actress, she will make a great Judy Holliday, but she took an hour that could have cemented her reputation and wasted way too much of it.