Album Reviews: Kristen Chenoweth – For The Girls / Idina Menzel – Christmas: A Season of Love

A pair of album reviews for the OG Wicked stars – Kristen Chenoweth’s For The Girls and Idina Menzel’s Christmas: A Season of Love

“You know the Queen of hearts is always your best bet”

No matter how they’ve diverged now, the careers of Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel will forever be connected by Wicked and so you wonder whether their respective 2016 albums being released at the same time was ‘just’ a coincidence. And those ties just won’t quit as late 2019 sees them both dropping records, albeit with a month or two inbetween this time.

Chenoweth’s album is For The Girls, a concept album of sorts, produce by Steve Tyrell and Jon Allen, focusing on tracks either written or performed by female artists. She might not exactly reinvent the wheel with her covers, but there’s something impressive about the way in which she draws the connecting line between the country pop of her upbringing – ‘Desperado’, ‘Crazy’ – to the standards for which she’s now famed – a glorious ‘The Man That Got Away’, ‘The Way We Were’. As diverse a collection it gets, it always coheres effectively. 

And there’s some real star-pulling power with her raft of special guests though. Ariana Grande pops up on a lushly orchestrated ‘You Don’t Own Me’, and Reba McEntire and Jennifer Hudson bolster ‘I’m A Woman’. But the chef’s kiss moment comes with a gorgeous duet with Dolly Parton on her ‘I Will Always Love You’ full of gentle harmonies and aching feeling 

I think my highlights are ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ and ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, both showing a similar side to Chenoweth’s music that we don’t often see, an unaffected guitar-strummed simplicity which actually permeates much of the record. This is about as radical as it gets for this consummate professional but it is an effective move and one which makes for an accomplished album. How I’d love for her to come perform some of these tracks here in the UK.

Following on from her 2014 festive album Holiday Wishes (Christmas Wishes in the UK), Idina Menzel has returned to the egg nog and mince pies with Christmas: A Season of Love. Full disclosure, that first album is one of my favourite Christmas albums, a perfect evocation of Broadway schmaltz that gets me right in the stocking, so this new album has a lot to live up to. And with 16 tracks plus two interludes, it certainly tries its best.

The opening one two of ‘Sleigh Ride’ and ‘The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year’ ramps up that Broadway aesthetic, showy vocals and brass-led arrangements keep things perky, Mame’s ‘We Need A Little Christmas’ is energetic fun and I love the medley of ‘Winter Wonderland/Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’. Hanukkah song ‘Ocho Kandelikas’ is a canny change of pace and there’s a beautiful reverence to ‘O Holy Night’ as it mingles with ‘Ave Maria’.

She can also count on a certain level of guest star too. Billy Porter pops by to cut loose on ‘I Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’ and there’s so much fun with Frozen co-star Josh Gad on ‘We Wish You The Merriest’. Mr Menzel (Aaron Lohr) chips in on ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and Frozen composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez,  chip in with chirpy original song ‘A Hand for Mrs. Claus’ on which Ariana Grande also makes an appearance, completing the set.

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