Regional Reviews: Boston
The Seth Rudetsky Series: Jessie Mueller
Mueller was the first star of the Seth Rudetsky Series at Boston's Emerson Colonial Theatre this week (Cheyenne Jackson and Kelli O'Hara are future guests). Rudetsky served as Mueller's interviewer and accompanist, leading the Broadway star in conversation between songs and swapping showbiz stories. Flashing back to her childhood, Mueller remembered being entranced at the first musicals she saw come through Illinois. I'm sure many in the audience left entranced by her stunning way with a song.
Mueller's chameleon voice gives her a unique edge in today's musical-theater scene. As she recreated characters she ha played on stages from Chicago to New York, she impressed with her vocal versatility, switching between pop belter, Golden Age soprano, and 1940s jazz baby with uncanny precision. A lovely cover of "Both Sides Now" invited welcome comparisons to Joni Mitchell, with a delicate head voice and huskier lower register.
With her comfort singing in so many genres, it was a surprise to hear that Mueller had no jazz songs prepared when she auditioned for the 2011 Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. It was, she admitted, her first-ever New York audition. No mattershe reenacted her hasty improvisation with the audition pianist, quickly transforming a lilting take on "It Might As Well Be Spring" into a spry up-tempo swing. She booked the show and kicked off a Broadway career that, to date, has earned her a Tony Award and three additional nominations. She and Rudetsky had fun with a lively reading of her big On a Clear Day ... number, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane's "Ev'ry Night at Seven" (originally written for the film Royal Wedding).
For fans of the classics, Mueller resurrected two roles that couldn't be more different from each other: the raucous, belty "Shy" from her high school production of Once Upon a Mattress; and a gentle, yearning "My White Knight" from a recent staging of The Music Man in Washington D.C. I was particularly moved to see her reprise her Julie Jordan from the 2018 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, singing a poignant, bruised "What's the Use of Wond'rin'," which led into her more hopeful delivery of "If I Loved You."
The audience seemed eager to welcome Mueller back after she starred in the 2015 tryout of Waitress at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater. She received a warm standing ovation for her wrenching delivery of "She Used to Be Mine," which she said gave her everything she needed to understand that character. This Sara Bareilles ballad perfectly suited Mueller's emotional ebb and flow with a melody line, her voice vulnerable one minute and heartbreakingly raw the next.
She and Rudetsky spoke about their social justice work together, including a Concert for America series started in response to the current administration, as well as the Broadway for Orlando all-star recording of "What the World Needs Now Is Love," which raised funds in the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. Performing the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune solo last night, Mueller invited the audience to sing along.
The evening's loose structure kept both performers on their toes, though the interview segments tended to run long. Happily, Mueller and Rudetsky closed with two joyous Carole King standards from her Tony Award-winning turn in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the title song and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," again inviting the audience to provide backup vocals.
I look forward to seeing where Jessie Mueller goes next. After this wide-ranging performance, it's clear she has many more surprises in store.
The Seth Rudetsky Series: Jessie Mueller, was presented on Monday, July 8, 2019, at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston MA. For more information on the series, visit www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com or call 888-616-0272.