Stephanie J. Block had some explaining to do.
As with most performers who find their way to the stage at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club, Block isn't a name immediately familiar to those outside of the theater circles.
Sure, there were hardcore Broadway fans in the audience who knew her from her Tony-nominated performance in the recent revival of "Drood," her lead in the notorious flop "The Pirate Queen," and her on-again/off-again relationship with "Wicked" (short version: She was the pre-Menzel Elphaba but lost out to the more-established name when it came to opening the show in New York. She understudied, took over the part, and led a national tour).
So, as in many a cabaret set, Block offered bio bits between songs, sometimes rambling but always with charm and sweetness that becomes a performer willing to admit that her jumpsuit-and-bangles outfit was, thanks to lost luggage, cobbled together in an afternoon shopping spree at Carson Pirie Scott and TJ Maxx.
For the record, she looked great…and sounded even better.
She opened the show with two relatively unknown songs, "Gotta Start Small" and "Never Neverland (Fly Away). Both suffered from overstuffed lyrics but at least the former didn't have the been there/heard that of the latter, which came across as a lesser version of the Marvin Hamlisch/Howard Ashman "Disneyland" without the clarity or originality. (Cabaret regulars may remember the song from composer Scot Alan's clunker of an appearance here in April, 2013)
The crowd-pleasing first-date patter song "Invention" played better. But after the "Les Miserables" movie, I'm not sure that anyone—even a singer as skilled as Block—can seem sincere singing "I Dreamed a Dream" in evening wear.
Block's spirit and voice were best served in a duet with a recorded Dolly Parton on "I Will Always Love You," with the song taking on a maternal feel. Equally strong was a sly version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" (Block was a replacement lead in the recent Broadway revival of "Anything Goes" so has lots of experience with the number).
Her nods to "Drood" and her lead role in "9-to-5: The Musical" played well even though "Writing on the Wall" and "Get Out and Stay Out" are hardly A-list songs.
As for the expected "Wicked" tunes, Block wisely opting for "Wicked"'s "For Good" (rather than the more common, show-offy "Defying Gravity"), "I'm Not That Girl," and the cut-from-the-show "Making Good."
Leading into her "Wicked" trio were "Children Will Listen" (from "Into the Woods") and the near-obligatory "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," both handled with stunning respect and freshness.