by Jeanie Riess
Though Broadway's bright light Kristin Chenoweth tried to steal the show at the grand opening of the Saenger Theatre Saturday - and with her enormous voice and crackling jokes, she certainly could have - the real star of the gala was the building that contained it.
The seats were nearly full for the opening gala, which celebrated the $5.2 million restoration that brought the theater back after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure of 2005. Though a soft opening invited Comedian Jerry Seinfeld to the newly refurbished stage at the end of September, Chenoweth reigned over the grand opening with a set of show tunes, both new and old, that audiences could have sung along to if they'd wanted (and many did). It was a set perfectly timed invoke nostalgia, with songs like "Que Sera Sera," and "Feed the Birds." Many were back in the Saenger for the first time since the storm, delighted by its plush seats, stellar acoustics and cloudy, twinkling sky.
Casey Dietz, who came to shows at the Saenger as a kid, said she was impressed by how crisp the old venue looked. "I hoped it would look this good," she said. William Sonner and Michael Gallaugher were also in the building pre-Katrina, and neither could believe how well the renovation turned out. "It didn't disappoint," said Gallaugher.
Chenoweth is a national act, but she was remarkably deft at appropriating her show to a local audience. She name-dropped local venues, like the bar Oz, and she ended the show wearing the number 37 Saints jersey of Steve Gleason, who was also in the audience. She fought on stage with a puppet claiming to be the queen of carnival and she repeatedly applauded the rebuilding efforts that reconstructed the Saenger and the city as a whole.
A series of almost embarrassingly sincere moments took hold of Chenoweth's second act. First, just before performing the song "Popular," which the former Glenda the Good Witch sang in English, Japanese and German, Chenoweth invited two fans on stage. The entire audience watched as a man in tears got down on one knee and proposed to his longtime partner (who said yes). Next, Chenoweth called out for a duet partner for the song "For Good," also from Wicked. That honor was granted to the 14-year-old Brogan Hausknecht, a student at St. Mary's Dominican High School.
Chenoweth declared that she had not only fallen in love with the City of New Orleans, but also the mayor of New Orleans, though "not in a naughty way." In a surprise grand finale, Mayor Mitch Landrieu took the stage, accompanied by the Tony award winner Michael Cerveris, to sing the Epilogue from the musical Les Miserable. Landrieu held his own in a short solo, before being joined by the Delgado Community College Choir, the Gay Men's Choir and the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans.