Powerhouse may be the best word to describe Australian and West End musical theatre star Caroline O'Connor, who is currently creating her first role on Broadway, strict, buttoned-up teacher Miss Shields in A Christmas Story, The Musical. Though she's playing a featured role, it's O'Connor's booming voice, comic antics and thrilling tap number "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" — performed with sensational young tapper Luke Spring — that lingers in one's memory. O'Connor has performed throughout the world in productions of Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, Follies and Piaf. Let's hope she gets to tackle one of those classics on Broadway.
In her New York concert debut Feb. 10 in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Elaine Paige demonstrated once again why she was able to originate the leading roles in Evita, Cats and Chess, triumph equally well with revivals of The King and I, Piaf and Anything Goes and even put her own stamp on Sweeney Todd's Nellie Lovett and Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond: pure talent mixed with a voice that soars like few others and a genuine joie de vivre that is completely contagious. The London treasure, who was most recently seen in the acclaimed revival of Follies, didn't offer her roof-raising version of that musical's "I'm Still Here," but she did manage to include a song from each of her numerous London hits. The singing actress, dressed in a low-cut black dress, began her 80-minute set with a pairing of West Side Story's "America" and Sting's "Englishman in New York," which included a few rewritten lyrics that referenced Broadway Cares, All That Chat and more. The remainder of her program was similar to a concert this writer caught two summers ago in Atlantic City, and, as thrilling as she sounded then, her voice was remarkably even more powerful in this intimate setting that overlooks Central Park. In fact, when that singular voice opened in its upper register and out came a rich, throbbing tone, one could only sit back and revel in the magnificent sound. Paige delivered showstopper after showstopper, including a heartfelt "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" that garnered the evening's first of many standing ovations; a thoroughly moving "As If We Never Said Goodbye," where actress met singer in superb fashion; a gorgeous "I Know Him So Well," which sounded eerily similar to her first recording of the tune over two decades ago; and two songs from Piaf ("Non, je ne regrette rien" and "If You Love Me") that threatened to bring down the house. She followed with her signature tune, an equally heartfelt "Memory," and then delivered what may be the definitive version of the torch classic "Cry Me a River." But, it should be noted, it's not only the voice and the interpretive powers that make Paige such a wonderful entertainer: She is also a gifted storyteller who is able to poke fun at herself in both story and song ("Small Packages," a tune written for the actress by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, was a delight and featured such lyrics as "I may be short. I may be svelte, but bet your ass, this b*tch can belt!") Paige also scored with a terrific rendition of "Broadway Baby," which featured humorous stories of her theatrical misadventures prior to Evita; the Beatles classic "Yesterday," her audition piece for Evita; a jazzy "I Get a Kick Out Of You"; a touching "Easy to Be Hard" from Hair; and a lovely reading of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Hello, Young Lovers."