We never expected to find ourselves at a cabaret performance. When we hear the word “cabaret,” we think of a casual night of entertainment in which a singer performs a few medicore songs. On “American Idol,” the judges use the term “cabaret” as an insult to imply that the performance wasn’t impressive. And this is precisely why we believe the labeling of Lea Salonga’s debut at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Jan. 19 as a “cabaret performance” is an understatement. The Tony and Olivier-winning singer did not give a cabaret performance: she gave a concert.
The name Lea Salonga is one that is thrown around quite often in the entertainment industry. The Filipina singer and actress made her professional debut at just seven years old in a production of “The King and I” in the Philippines. She had since then gone on to take the title role of Kim in the musical “Miss Saigon,” was the first Asian to play the roles of Éponine and Fantine in the Broadway musical “Les Misérables” and had been given the title of Disney Legend for having voiced two Disney princesses (Jasmine from “Aladdin” and Mulan from “Mulan”). And those are just a few of the many accomplishments she’d made during her 34-year-long career thus far.
Lea Salonga’s performance will be hard for anyone to ever challenge. Walking on stage in an off-the-shoulder black top, magenta satin skirt and a fabulous, yet tasteful, diamond belt, we felt that we were in the presence of royalty. Yet her calm demeanor and laid-back personality made us realize how down to earth she truly is. This, of course, made the entire evening much more wonderful, knowing that someone could be as famous as her and still have a shred of humility left.
Of course, the night was about her singing, and so throughout the revue she sang a variety of songs that were not only well known in her career, but also classic standards that everyone could appreciate. One of our favorite numbers was her rendition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” sung in a slower, jazzier version that gave us chills every few moments. She added depth to the song through her passion and facial expressions that exemplified her seasoned theatrical upbringing, but she was not over the top as many Broadway singers can become.
But where Salonga drew the clear line between star-quality concert and nonchalant cabaret wasn’t just in her ridiculously strong vibrato (which age hasn’t touched one bit); it was in her storytelling. Salonga made sure to captivate her audience with compelling anecdotes and hilarious commentary (“I was in a couple small shows you may have heard of: ‘Les Miserables’? Anyone? No? Okay.”) in between songs so as to not leave listeners feeling detached.
An example of her storytelling ability was when Salonga chose to sing a song in her native tongue of Tagalog after sharing with the audience her attachment to her fun-loving aunt, who had always loved the song but could no longer tell her so after her stroke.
“I’ve chosen to sing this song in Filipino because I find that the heart and soul in music is the same in every language,” Salonga said.
It’s the detailed anecdotes and the explanations behind the songs Salonga offered that gave her performances so much more meaning because the audience could feel a connection to the performer that they would never be able to feel if they were listening all the way through a set by any cabaret singer.
Yet the main reason for our attendance was, of course, to hear her sing her rendition of songs from “Les Misérables.” As fans of the beautiful show that was revitalized for us through the surprisingly wonderful movie version, we were drawn to Salonga after hearing she had played Éponine as well as Fantine on Broadway. And although she did not sing the latter’s ballad, Salonga’s version of “On My Own” was one of the most chilling moments in our theatrical lives: every hair was on edge as we were enthralled the entire time. No theater nerd’s life is complete without seeing Lea Salonga perform her Éponine live. It was that magical.
Much to the delight of the Disney fans in the audience, Salonga couldn’t resist giving her renditions of “Reflection” from Disney’s “Mulan” and “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin.”
“One of my favorite things about my job is that I get to be a Disney princess,” Salonga said. “And not just once, but twice.”
The singer’s vocals proved to be just as perfect and exactly the same as the recordings in the movies, which was impressive since Aladdin was filmed in 1992 and Mulan in 1998. Her ability to hit the high notes with a childlike purity and clarity, even after all these years, was unbelievable.
And the best part was when Salonga began to lead into Aladdin’s “A Whole New World,” explaining that in her shows she usually selects one male member from the audience to sing Aladdin’s part of the duet. However, tonight was a special night, as Salonga selected her male lead ahead of time. She introduced Nick Pitera, the young male YouTuber who gained fame when he posted a viral video of himself singing a medley of Disney songs — both the male and female roles — demonstrating his incredible vocal range.
“I’m definitely crossing this off my bucket list,” Pitera said before he began the duet with one of his idols.
Lea Salonga is a rare talent that will forever be a timeless presence in theater. If you don’t know who Lea Salonga is, Google her. It will be the best decision you have made all year.