In 1979, when Melissa Etheridge was an aspiring rock star getting ready to leave Leavenworth, Kan., for music school in Boston, she got a 12-string guitar. Her father made a macramé strap for it — a sturdy, intricate piece of knot work that was a portable souvenir of his love.
“And this is it,” his Grammy Award-winning daughter said during her Broadway show, turning around to give everyone a view of the strap that held up her instrument.
It was a charming moment, and in our high-definition, multi-screen world, refreshingly analog: just Etheridge, life-size and in three dimensions, sharing the room with us.
Share it she does, superbly, in “Melissa Etheridge: My Window,” which opened Thursday at Circle in the Square Theater, just one block east of where an earlier version of the show ran Off Broadway last fall. On Broadway, this rock concert spliced with memoir has gained a striking intimacy, as if Etheridge had shrunk an arena to fit in the palm of her hand.
A stage stretches across one end of the space, floor seats and a center aisle are where the theater’s thrust stage would usually be, and a tiny satellite stage sits behind them. Circle in the Square never struck me as a warm, embracing theater, but Etheridge makes it one, paying graceful, diligent attention to every section of the 726-seat audience, and occasionally coming down off the stage to sing and stroll.
Written by Etheridge with her wife, Linda Wallem Etheridge, and directed once again by Amy Tinkham, this musically gorgeous, narratively bumpy show starts with Etheridge’s hit “Like the Way I Do,” ends with “Come to My Window” and fits 15 husky-voiced songs in between, including a trippily comical “Twisted Off to Paradise,” an arrestingly beautiful “Talking to My Angel” and a winking ode to her current gig, “On Broadway.” (Sound design is by Shannon Slaton.)
On a set by Bruce Rodgers whose spareness serves the complexity of Olivia Sebesky’s projections, this is a visually slick production, with abundant jewel tones in Abigail Rosen Holmes’s saturated rock-show lighting, and Etheridge looking glamorous in costumes by Andrea Lauer.
The show is shorter, more polished and more assured than it was Off Broadway — though Etheridge still seems undefended when she doesn’t have a guitar strapped across her or a piano in front of her. She also doesn’t speak memorized lines but rather tells versions of stories mapped out in the script. It’s a valid approach that sometimes leaves her fumbling for words.
Kate Owens plays the small, clowning role of the Roadie, a character whom the audience loves but who I wish would desist from upstaging Etheridge with antics.
Etheridge herself is very funny, and she knows how to handle a crowd. Such as when she got to the point in her life story when she fell for a woman who was married to a movie star — “a for real, for real movie star,” she added, for emphasis.
“Who?” a voice called out, not that the performance is meant to be interactive.
“Look it up,” Etheridge said, shrugging it off.
Unlike her recently published memoir “Talking to My Angels,” which opens with a recollection of “a heroic dose of cannabis” that changed her understanding of herself and the universe, “My Window” proceeds chronologically, starting with Etheridge’s birth. (Projections show baby Missy with fabulous hair.) So the talk of what Etheridge calls “plant medicine” comes later.
This is a passion of hers, so it belongs in a show about her. But the performance devolves into speechifying every time it comes up, except when it morphs into an enactment of experiencing an altered state — which, despite some vividly kinetic projections, can be as tiresome to watch onstage as it would be off.
Surprisingly, the most starkly powerful part of the show Off Broadway — Etheridge recounting the death of her son Beckett, at age 21, in 2020 — works less well on Broadway.
I cannot fault Etheridge for her stiffness in that delicate section at the performance I saw, or for reaching for words — like her blunt assessment, “He was difficult” — to convey her memories. But this is where relying on the script’s gentler, more contextual language could assuage what must be a terrible vulnerability.
Logistics also undercut that scene. While Etheridge speaks from the large stage and the auditorium is plunged in darkness, a guitar is placed on the satellite stage by a technician who crosses in front of many people. No distraction should break the connection between Etheridge and her audience in that moment.
She is, throughout “My Window,” a marvel with that audience.
Back when her fame was rising, she told us in Act II, she started playing arenas and stadiums.
“Thousands and thousands of people,” she said, “and the funny thing is, the more people there were, the further away y’all got.”
On Broadway, they’re near enough again for her to commune with. And so she does.
Melissa Etheridge: My Window
Through Nov. 19 at Circle in the Square Theater, Manhattan; melissaetheridge.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.