Hometown Broadway star Heidi Blickenstaff, making her debut with the Fresno Philharmonic at its annual holiday concert, laughed on Saturday night as she looked out at the large, appreciative Saroyan Theatre audience. “I feel like I know each and every one of you here tonight. So no pressure!”
It was a sweet, rousing homecoming for the talented performer, a former Good Company Players star who has persevered for a couple of decades on Broadway and whose career continues to climb with some impressive starring roles. Some thoughts on the evening:
First off, there’s a special joy in the room when a hometown kid makes good. How could you not get emotional during Blickenstaff’s touching rendition of “Annie,” the title role in which she starred at age 10 at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater? It doesn’t get any more sweet than that.
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I’ve never heard “O Holy Night” done with such an emphatic Broadway belt, and I loved it.
Blickenstaff hasn’t spent much time doing symphony concerts such as this “Home for the Holidays” event with the Fresno Philharmonic, and, yes, she did seem a tad nervous during the first half of the concert. She didn’t hold the house in the palm of her hand like I know she can do. (Part of that, I think, was the subpar sound design, but more on that in a moment.) But when she returned in the second half, having switched from a ravishing black gown to an even more eye-popping blue one, she more than hit her stride. Her rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was a stuff-strutting joy to experience. And “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” soared.
I wish we’d had more Heidi, actually. I know she had to fit into the broader theme of a holiday concert, which included the Fresno Master Chorale and several orchestra-only numbers, but she really didn’t have much time to spend with the audience. This makes sense for an average guest artist with no connection to Fresno. But I wanted to hear more stories from Blickenstaff – and a little more of a chance to show off her wry, muscular stage presence. She has a great voice, yes, but she’s even more a terrific actress who knows how to use that voice.
As for the rest of the program: It was fine but not stellar. The orchestra, under the accomplished baton of amiable Broadway maestro Andy Einhorn, sounded a little thin and a little mushy. The well-prepared chorus, alas, had a metallic, disembodied quality, as if all those talented folks were singing from inside a refrigerator. I’ve dinged the Fresno Philharmonic before for its awkward use of amplified sound, and I’m disappointed it wasn’t better.
Still, this was Blickenstaff’s night, and by the end of the concert, which ended with a merry sing-along, I got caught up in her infectious energy and obvious joy at being on the stage of the Saroyan. I’ve gotten to see her perform in some of her biggest hits in New York, and I’m glad people in Fresno finally got a taste of her star power.