The setting: the L.J. Williams Theatre, which was filled Saturday evening with that rarest and giving of audiences: a hometown crowd about to celebrate one of its own.
The entrance: Betsy Wolfe, who appeared on this stage at age 11 in the musical “Annie,” walks on to thunderous applause, the kind suffused not just with appreciation and anticipation but genuine affection. It’s one thing to laud a professional performer because of her talent; it’s another to have memories of her as a girl and teenager singing her lungs out.
The event: This is yet another hometown benefit performance offered by Wolfe, who over the years has made it a habit to visit her family and raise money for a worthy cause. (The Visalia Education Foundation is this year’s lucky recipient.) Wolfe, who has forged a career on and off-Broadway in such shows as “The Last Five Years,” “110 in the Shade,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” is here with Andrew Resnick (her uber-talented music director in “The Last Five Years”) for an intimate evening of voice and piano.
The opener: Wolfe shares a song that probably no one in the audience has heard, “Please Like Me,” by Robert Lopez. The tune was cut from the musical “Up Here,” which Wolfe starred in during its world premiere in San Diego. Yes, Betsy, no question: This audience likes you.
The program: Wolfe mixes in well-known songs (a tender version of Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon” and Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich’s chipper “Taylor the Latte Boy”) with some behind-the-scenes goodies (a sweet dedication of “More Than Just a Spare,” cut from the movie version of “Frozen,” to Wolfe’s sister, Katie). Her sense of humor is well represented: In the song “A Summer in Ohio,” from “The Last Five Years,” she’s a little looser and more wry than her version on the cast album. (I always laugh when she acknowledges “Wayne the Snake,” with whom she shares a dressing room, along with the snake’s stripper owner.) Giving “Ohio” even more cache is the fact she performed the song earlier this year at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops.
Special guests: There are two. The first is Becky Hansen, a childhood friend of Wolfe’s, who joins her on stage to sing and play guitar. (Sentimental and memorable? You bet.) The second is Evan D’Angeles, who worked with Wolfe in the San Francisco production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and the pair get frisky with “Suddenly Seymour” from “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Best Visalia story: When Wolfe was in third grade, she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” to her class after assuring the teacher she would childproof the lyrics. She laughs as she’s about to begin – “I really should be on my knees doing this,” she says – and belts out the tune. It’s a touching moment. I can imagine she is half in the present and half in the past as she sings: part precocious third grader, part seasoned performer. Isn’t it amazing how you can stroll down memory lane but keep a foot in the here and now?
The “Frozen” moment: There’s a lot of chatter in Broadway Land about Wolfe’s involvement with the new “Frozen” musical coming out next year. (Some news sources have already reported that she has landed the lead role of Elsa.) Here’s what is official: She played Elsa in an early lab version of the musical, but no one is saying anything beyond that. When Wolfe at the end of a three-part Disney-heroine melody offers a full-scale salute to the music of “Frozen” with a stirring rendition of “Let It Go,” you can understand why she got to sing the role in the lab production. She can belt it out, yes, with her final note a marvel, but – let’s face it – there are probably a dozen Broadway veterans (and newcomers) with similar vocal chops. What Wolfe brings to the role is a sly, razor-sharp sense of intelligence and frosty determination. Which, for the empowered Elsa, seems perfect. Just sayin’.
What’s next: Wolfe heads back to Broadway to play a significant role in the new revival of William Finn’s “Falsettos” (with an all-star cast including Andrew Rannells from “The Book of Mormon”). The show officially opens Oct. 27. With director James Lapine at the helm, this is a big deal.
The takeaway: The Visalia concert is heartfelt, relaxed, homespun and inspired. Wolfe isn’t one of those performers who flees town at the first opportunity and only begrudgingly acknowledges her roots. “My dearest and bestest friends are still here,” she says, smiling at the audience. From the warmth of its response, it’s clear the feeling is mutual.