Review: The Kennedy Center’s ‘Celebrating the Human Spirit Awards’ Gala featuring Idina Menzel

The Kennedy Center’s annual party with a purpose on Wednesday night, the Celebrating the Human Spirit Awards Gala, honored Distinguished Philanthropists Patrick G. Ryan and Shirley W. Ryan and Citizen Artist Forest Whitaker. Presenting the awards were Board Chairman David M. Rubenstein and Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter, along with Grammy award-winning jazz bassist and singer, Esperanza Spalding and sponsored by The Boeing Company.

True Whitaker, Forest Whitaker, Shirley Ryan, Pat Ryan, Rob Ryan, Pat Ryan Jr., and Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter. Photo by Elman Studio.
True Whitaker, Forest Whitaker, Shirley Ryan, Patrick Ryan, Rob Ryan, Patrick Ryan Jr., and Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter. Photo by Elman Studio.

The Kennedy Center created the Celebrating the Human Spirit Awards four years ago to recognize two recipients annually who have impacted the advancement of art and culture through their philanthropic support and citizen artistry.

Patrick and Shirley Ryan are nationally recognized for a foundation they established in 1984 that focuses on the arts, healthcare, and education. Shirley Ryan has made particularly significant inroads to support early detection and intervention to promote infant motor, sensory and communication development through her clinics and programs.

Oscar award-winning Best Actor Forest Whitaker is founder and CEO of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative and a UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation. Forest Whitaker has worked internationally using the arts and educational tools to create better living conditions for young people living in regions where there is violence, including the United States.

Esperanza Spalding told the dinner audience she was thrilled to present the award to Whitaker who, through his advocacy, recognizes that the arts have the power “to alchemize the energy of anger and violence and fear and change it into imagination and creativity.”

The evening also included Valerie June, a high school graduate of the Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts Program, a highly successful school reform effort using high-quality integrated arts education to boost academic achievement in some of the area’s toughest inner city schools. Singing and playing folk guitar, Valerie’s powerfully strong vocals had a distinctly twangy quality that should make her a standout as she continues her career in the arts.

Capping off an elegant evening of dinner and after-party dancing was stage, film, television and music icon Idina Menzel in concert. Menzel was a great choice for this awards gala, as her own philanthropic work as co-founder of A BroadWay Foundation gives girls from underserved communities the chance to participate in arts-centered programs as an outlet for self-expression and creativity.

Idina Menzel performing at the 2019 Kennedy Center Gala. Photo by Elman Studio.
Idina Menzel performing at the 2019 Kennedy Center Gala. Photo by Elman Studio.

Broadway is home to Idina Menzel. She’s got that Broadway sound and she belts out a song with a voice so loud and clear you can feel her heartfelt vibrato in the gut. She might have been Ethel Merman in another life!

Idina Menzel was the original Maureen in Jonathan Larson’s Rent that’s now twenty years old, and she received a Tony Award as the misunderstood green girl in Wicked as the original Elphaba. Frozen, the Disney film hit, won her an Oscar for “Let it Go” as Best Original Song as well as a Grammy Award. And she included it in a crowd-pleasing lineup of the best songs from all of them.

Backed up by a first-rate 5-piece band (whose names were not in the program) with keyboards, bass, guitar, drums, and a female backup singer, Idina Menzel knew exactly what the audience wanted to hear and she delivered.

Soaring high with “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, her vocals filled the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center and you could just see her rising to the rafters in that witch costume and green face if you were lucky enough to see her in the Broadway smash hit.

From Rent, she included the beloved “No Day but Today” and “Take Me for What I Am,” where she had a little fun with the audience and invited volunteers to help her singalong.  Four eager young women didn’t hesitate to run down the aisles to solo along with Idina with surprisingly terrific voices and sexy body movements to boot!

Idina gave Barbra Streisand a run for the money on “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and she recounted a funny story when she sang this song to honor Streisand at the Kennedy Center Awards. Jokingly, she told the audience that Streisand asked her after the performance if she was the person who had sung that song during the program — and then said it was “very nice!” But tonight’s audience was much more openly appreciative of Idina’s fabulous performance of this great show tune from Funny Girl.

Idina Menzel is down-to-earth, chatty, personal and warm with an audience. She’s the girl next door dancing in her living room when she kicks off her shiny, spiked heels to sing and prance around the stage to the pulsing pop-rock beat of “I Melt with You.”

Or she’s glam vixen on Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” dramatically infusing it with a little “Roxanne.”  She’s not afraid to go gospel on “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” and sings “Brave” with the courage to prove it. Idina Menzel can sing anything.

The Kennedy Center raised a million dollars at this worthy fundraiser for the Building the Future Campaign to support the September 7, 2019 grand opening of The REACH.

Described as “a living theater where diverse art forms collide to break down the boundaries between audience and art,” The REACH will include club-style performances, a Learning Lab for students and visitors to explore hands-on-arts experiences, social events as well as festivals, outdoor films, art installations, youth programs, and exhibitions.

Great new arts initiatives are in the works at the Kennedy Center.

Concert Running Time: Ninety minutes, with no intermission.

The Kennedy Center’s Celebrating the Human Spirit Awards Gala featuring Idina Menzel played on April 3, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets to future Kennedy Center events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.

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Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer (career diplomat) of the U.S. Department of State. While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University. Ramona is an avid theatergoer, dance enthusiast and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.


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