Nov 12, 2021
By Jennie Litt
Photos: Helane Blumfield, courtesy of BroadwayWorld
You would think that for Megan Hilty, star of TV’s Smash, Broadway veteran, and Tony nominee, making her cabaret debut at Feinstein’s/54 Below would be about as momentous as picking up a half-gallon of milk at the corner deli. And yet, Hilty was moved to tears several times during the course of her Diamond Series opening-night show, expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to sing for clamorously adoring fans in such glamorous surroundings, in the city where she first tasted success. It was that quality of open-heartedness, as much as her stunning vocal abilities and that distinctive signature that stamps a Hilty styling, which proved the most memorable takeaway of a memorable evening.
Backed by a tight four-piece ensemble which included her husband Brian Gallagher on guitar and singer-songwriter Matt Cusson on piano, Hilty sang a program—part career retrospective, interspersed with a few well-chosen standards—that mixed old and new, comedy and drama, country and opera with a satisfying helping of the sparkling power-belt she’s best known for.
Hilty has the charisma, the versatility, the unique instrument, and above all the utterly individualized style of a Streisand, a Chenoweth, a Garland. Every phrase she sang came out imbued with her special DNA. Such singing is fearless, masterful, revelatory. While always serving the needs of the song, Hilty riffed, soared, chewed on the ends of her phrases as if she couldn’t bear to let them go. Her instrument is so much more than a powerful pair of lungs, a mastery of myriad techniques, a cathedral of resonance, a pitch-perfect rendering of styles; her instrument is that rarest of phenomena, the authentic expression of her entire organism. Megan Hilty is a mighty engine of song.
She opened the evening with the first of four Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman originals from the score of Smash, “They Just Keep Moving The Line,” a powerhouse belt lament that for any other artist would have been saved for the 11 o’clock number; for Hilty it was just a warmup. From there, she moved into a medley of songs from Annie Get Your Gun (Irving Berlin), which opened with a slowed-down and deeply-felt “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Next came a nod to her four-and-a-half years playing Glinda in the Broadway and other casts of Wicked (Stephen Schwartz) with a tongue-in-cheek “Popular.”
It happened to be Hilty and Gallagher’s eighth wedding anniversary, and she spoke from a full heart about their relationship before launching into “What A Guy” (Marvin Hamlisch/David Zippel) from the Goodbye Girl musical. The couple then duetted on “Suddenly Seymour” (Alan Menkin/Howard Ashman), locking eyes and cracking each other up, in what felt like a very natural and authentic interaction.
Hilty demonstrated her brilliance at impersonation with a perfect takeoff on Dolly Parton in two numbers from the Broadway musical 9 to 5 (Parton). These were followed by “Crazy” (Willie Nelson) which she sang in her role as Patsy Cline in the Lifetime TV movie Patsy and Loretta; but other than throwing in a few sobbing grace notes, she interpreted, rather than impersonated Cline’s signature vocals.
In a quiet interval, she mashed up “Autumn Leaves” (Jacques Prevert/Joseph Kosma) with “When October Goes” (Barry Manilow/Johnny Mercer), in an arrangement that echoed one made famous by cabaret great Nancy LaMott; then she reminisced about her schooldays studying opera to set up “The Alto’s Lament” (Zina Goldrich/Marcy Heisler), a song that showcased her glorious classical chops and her broad comic instincts in equal measure.
The rest of the show was devoted to Smash in one way or another: the wistful “Second Hand White Baby Grand” (Shaiman/Wittman), a duet of “That’s Life” (Dean Kay/Kelly Gordon) with MD Cusson (which she sang in the series with Katharine McPhee), and an extended “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” (Jule Styne/Leo Robin), its lyrics as sparkling as its subject matter and delivered with a dynamic combination of comic timing, diction, and star power that brought the audience spontaneously to its feet. She closed with a mashup of “Don’t Forget Me/Let Me Be Your Star” (Shaiman/Wittman) the latter teasingly short.
The Diamond Series might not be in many music lovers’ budgets, but it’s a night worth saving up for. The ticket price includes a four-course meal, complimentary glass of wine, and a chocolate chip cookie to send you on your way. The meal was ambitious and delicious (canapés, a starter, a main, and a dessert), and the service attentive. Best of all is the Diamond Series talent, which includes the likes of Kelli O’Hara and Jennifer Holliday.
In addition to Gallagher and Cusson, the band comprised Dennis Michael Keefe on bass and Jack DeBoe on drums.
There are five more opportunities to see Hilty at Feinstein’s/54 Below, November 3-7. Doors open at 6 p.m.; all shows begin at 8:30 p.m.