“Lea Salonga: New York in June”
Café Carlyle – June 7 – 25
Lea Salonga—who won a Tony and every other award playing Kim in Miss Saigon, who starred as Eponine in Les Miserables and Mei Li in Flower Drum Song—yes, that girl with the radiantly youthful face and glorious voice, has grown up. Now at the Café Carlyle, she is still young and beautiful, wearing a sophisticated hairdo piled on her head and a glamorous black gown. Her voice remains gorgeous, with strength, flawless technique, phrasing and control.
Closing the season at the Café Carlyle, Salonga has brought all the gifts in her professional kit bag that she has toted around the world of theatre and concert stages since childhood. However, you need more than beauty and flawless vocal ability to score a 10 in the picky word of cabaret. It is not quite the same thing to bring the big-stage package of talents into a small, intimate cabaret room. This is not to say that cabaret is more difficult than concert and theatre stages, not at all, but it is different. Some performers are at home in any medium, and others are skittish when they step on the barely raised platform without that fourth wall with the audience, maybe a foot away.
Salonga seems comfortable in the cozy Café. She scans the audience, smiles beautifully and aims the lyrics around the room. In her show, directed by Daniel Kutner, short anecdotes lead into her eclectic songbook, which includes Australian Geoffrey Mack’s wry “I’ve Been Everywhere.” The American verse of the song, a hit for Johnny Cash, starts cute. Imagine petite Salonga climbing into a “semi with a high and canvas-covered load.” She moves into the chorus delivering each syllable perfectly, and that can be iffy with lyrics like “Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma…,” and on and on. It’s a catchy tune and she’s added international sites like South Korea, Canada and her hometown, Manila. However, stopping the song at intervals to chat about her adventures in Saskatchewan and South Korea was not a good idea. Except for singing one section in her native language, Tagalog, nothing much interesting is added. Better would have been just inserting the extra international cities that fit easily with timing and rhyme into the tune. That would let us know the personal connection for Salonga—but the comic touch of imagining her totin’ her pack “along the dusty Winnemucca road” is fun.
Some of the song selections are puzzling. Speaking about a traumatic breakup with a boyfriend, she looks up to God, crying, “What do You have planned for me?” And then she met her husband, illustrated by two songs. The first, John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” is a song McCartney wrote about African Americans’ struggle for equal rights, and connecting this civil upheaval to Salonga’s broken heart is not persuasive. By itself, the second song, Kander & Ebb’s “A Quiet Thing,” would have worked far more efficiently in making her point, which is about finding love at a vulnerable time in her life. With its simple and lovely line “Happiness comes in on tiptoe,” it tells the whole story.
“How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman) is paired with Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” in a full-volume theatrical arrangement that overwhelms the heart of these two intimate ballads. Far better is Salonga’s rendition of a slow, swingy “Nice Work Iif You Can Get It” (Ira and George Gershwin), accompanied only by Jack Cavari’s guitar.
Lea Salonga is such a fine singer technically, it would be a treat to see her sing with more interpretation and personal honesty. We know she has range, power and clean, long lines. What we need to know now is how she feels about the songs she is singing, and how she can make us feel.
Lea Salonga is accompanied by a quartet led by Musical Director/pianist Larry Yurman.