Two Thumbs Up for Elsie

Angela Tricarico

Darren Criss is transforming Broadway as we know it. The musical theater wonderboy had a vision, and on Sunday, Sept. 27, his longtime dream came true. He imagined a festival, like Coachella, for people who love musical theater and showtunes as much as he does.

Darren Criss on stage (AP photo)
Darren Criss on stage (AP photo)

The first annual Elsie Fest was announced mid-August, with a star studded line up already in place for the day. On the bill was Lea Salonga, Team Starkid, Seth Rudetsky, Larua Osnes, Aaron Tveit, Leslie Odom Jr., and Criss himself. From the initial announcement, the excitement and hype for Elsie Fest was huge.

The actual day couldn’t have been more perfect for a concert on the Hudson River; it seemed Mother Nature had held up for Elsie.
The first performer of the day was Salonga, a stage and screen actress best known for performances in Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, and voicing Princesses Jasmine and Mulan. Her set featured songs from her past shows, along with “Reflection” from Mulan, and a duet of “A Whole New World” with Criss. In the middle of her set, she covered “Still Hurting,” from the show “The Last Five Years.” The show was turned into a movie this year, with “Still Hurting” being one of Anna Kendrick’s solos. She closed her set with a solo from her new show “Allegiance,” inspired by the life of George Takei.

Team Starkid is a theater group founded at the University of Michigan in 2009, by then students Criss, Brian Holden, Matt and Nick Lang. Their Harry Potter parody musicals went viral, and they began writing more parody musicals, relocated to Chicago, and have seen success even after Criss’ departure from the group. Their set at Elsie opened with a song from Ani: A Parody, a Star Wars musical. Criss joined the group for a song from the Potter sequel, in which he played Potter. He joined them once more for “Super Friends,” the final song from Holy Musical [email protected]!

Rudetsky had the audience laughing throughout his entire set. He’s known for his Broadway themed radio shows, and his show Deconstructed. Deconstructed is a stage show in which Rudetsky teaches the audience about singing by playing great and not so great clips from extremely famous Broadway stars. It was for sure a highlight of Elsie. After Rudetsky, came Osnes. A Broadway vet, Osnes is best known for playing Cinderella in Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and was Bonnie in the Original Broadway Cast of Bonnie and Clyde. Her set almost seemed like a campaign for Disney to make her their next princess, with all the Disney covers she sang. After singing her “Cinder-epic Medley,” Osnes invited Tveit on stage for their first ever duet: “Falling Slowly” from the show Once. Her last song was one from her new show, Bandstand, which opens this week at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

As the sun began to set, Tveit took the stage. A seasoned Broadway vet, Tveit seemed to stray from showtunes in his set, instead of relying heavily on them the way Salonga had. Tveit focused more on pop music, tricking the audience into thinking he was going to sing a song by Justin Bieber, before launching into a slow, reworked version of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Osnes joined him on stage to sing the love duet from Wicked, “As Long As You’re Mine.” He finished with a proper finale song, “Goodbye” from Broadway’s short lived Catch Me If You Can.

Having only just arrived, because he came right from his performance on Broadway, Leslie Odom, Jr. took the stage with little preparation. Odom, Jr. is making headlines for his phenomenal portrayal of Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap musical Hamilton: An American Musical. He opened with one of the Burr solos, “The Room Where It Happens.” Odom Jr also sang “The Guilty Ones” from Spring Awakening, a few songs from Jersey Boys, and Selena Gomez’s “Good For You.” He closed his set with a surprise collaboration, “What You Own” from RENT, with Tveit. Both had starred in RENT at different times.

It seemed the moment everyone was waiting for finally happened when Criss took the stage. The moon was well on its way to becoming fully eclipsed, and the crowd had an electric feel to it. In typical Criss fashion, he opened his set with a Disney song, “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You.” His surprise guests included A Great Big World, and Tyler Glenn, lead singer of Neon Trees. He threw it back to his Glee roots, and at the very end, threw it back even further, to “the other school [he] never went to.” It was Hogwarts, of course, and he invited his friends from Starkid back on stage to sing the song that started it all: the opening song from A Very Potter Musical. It was only fitting Criss closed the night with a cover of “Cabaret,” because after all, the festival’s name comes from that song.

Elsie’s success couldn’t have been predicted to the levels it ended up reaching. It’s just another sign that Broadway theater is still alive, well, and not going anywhere any time soon.