The Tony-winning musical spitfire Kristin Chenoweth has built an onstage persona of false immodesty, of hogging the spotlight in a way that fits the ultra-popular Glinda she originated in Broadway’s still-running megahit “Wicked” 16 years ago. But her new concert show, “For the Girls,” which kicked off a limited run at the Nederlander Theatre on Friday, proves what a generous performer she is.
She opens the show not with a solo number, but a trio rendition of “I Am Woman” where backup singers Crystal Monee Hall and Marissa Rosen get equal treatment — and then she cedes the stage to a series of guest performers throughout the two-hour-plus performance, from “Wicked” standby Brittney Johnson to Metropolitan Opera mezzosoprano Jamie Barton to dancer-choreographer Tyler Hynes. (The guest lineup will vary nightly.) It’s as if she wants to single-handedly revive the variety-show concept — or vaudeville.
Or maybe she just wants to pad out a concert-cum-cabaret act to be long enough to justify an intermission where she can sell copies of her new album, “For the Girls,” a collection of covers of songs made famous by female artists she loves. Chenoweth performs many of these classics throughout the night, from Linda Rondstadt’s “Desperado” to Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” to Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.”
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Chenoweth’s voice remains a powerful instrument, rich in tone even in the upper registers. And her melisma carries a hint of twang that belies her Oklahoma Bible Belt upbringing. But there’s a sameyness to the material, with lots of torch songs, that’s broken up only by the frankly mixed bag of musical guests and novelty numbers. Chenoweth and Barton each do a hilarious faux operatic song that shows off both their training and their pipes, but the supposedly comedic number about text speak is awful AF, the musical equivalent of an out-of-touch suburban mom joke, and there are other throwaway moments as well.
The evening’s highlight is the encore — both of them — which includes a literal drop-the-mic moment where she belts out “Smile” center stage, without amplification. It’s a throwback to classic Broadway, before performers were wired up with mics that look like moles on their foreheads or orthdontic headgear, and it delivers the kind of goosebumps thrill that is all too rare on the Great White Way of the 21st century.