I confess to being torn over Idina Menzel. Do I love Wicked? Abso-fricken-lutely. Did I sing “Let It Go” in the shower for five months? Guilty. Do I still listen to the cast recording of Rent? I’m gay, aren’t I?
But while those recordings were “live” in a real sense, I am not sure Menzel really captures me in a concert setting. A TV special she did for PBS a few years ago left me disappointed, and I actively disliked her 2014 Christmas album Holiday Dreams.
What brings up such contradictory feelings within me? I haven’t figured it out yet, though I have some ideas. She’s a Broadway belter, with a more nasally mezzo range than her spiritual godmother, Barbra Streisand, whose tones are more rounded, more mellow. Menzel is distinctive, but in solo settings it tends to grate some on my nerves. So, assembling more than 20 songs on the two-disc set Idina: Live, just out this month, could be a recipe for disaster, if not a formula for induced rage. And truth is, my reaction to the album initially was ambivalent. The first two songs — “Queen of Swords” and “Small World,” both live covers (recorded in Las Vegas) off her 2016 album idina — were technically fine, even well-written songs, that just didn’t conjure anything for me: Not excitement, nor admiration, nor fondness. Just a desire that her voice had more levels. At its best, pop music is about soulfulness amid cliches. Where is her soul?
But long about her acoustic, dressed-down version of “I’m Not That Girl,” you’re transported to those moments in Wicked where she really does delve into the emotional heart of a ballad. She’s a diva for our generation; there’s no denying it, why fight it?
— Arnold Wayne Jones
Menzel is the special guest of Josh Groban’s Bridges Tour, at American Airlines Center on Wednesday. Ticketmaster.com.