In the middle of her first national tour since the closure of theatres, worlwide musical theatre icon Lea Salonga stopped by London’s Royal Albert Hall this week, raising the hopes and granting the wishes of a passionate beloving audience. Guillermo Názara reviews this one-in-a-lifetime event, to tell us about the experience that has marked a turning point not only for its viewers, but its protagonist herself.
And now I’m all alone again – nowhere to go, no one to turn to. But the sweet memories and feelings that through words are pouring into. The memories of one show – the kind your heart will not let go… There’s really no other way to do justice to such a poetic moment like the return of Lea Salonga to the stage than by paying homage to some of the lines that made her a star across the world of musical theatre. The dramatism of watching such a fairly renowned performer treading the boards of arguably London’s most iconic concert hall can only be topped by the fact that she had not done so for over 20 years – where she gave her by then euphoriously applauded and now YouTube multi-time-played rendition of Eponine’s tragically alluring anthem, as part of Les Misérables’ dubbed as dream cast.
And it’s been in fact that sort of dream the one that’s put her back where she belongs – through the longing and praying of these past two seasons, which have been passionately shared not only by her fellow colleagues, musicians, managers and producers, but by huge groups of audiences and, more precisely, the faithful fans that last Tuesday almost packed the over 5-thousand-seat venue. The atmosphere was already electrifying by the time the lights were about to dim – and burst into an explosion of furor and excitement when the overture’s first notes, with the unmistakable Asian flavour that for ten years conquered the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, filled the space and transported our minds to the romance and dangers of the Vietnam war – later flying us to innermost places of our childhood’s soul.
It was exactly that innocent wonder that cascaded down the auditorium all through the evening – lavishly exuding from her entrance, which was welcomed by thunderous clapping and a sea of spontaneous shouted-out-loud compliments, neither of which would stop during the whole gig. It’s easy to understand why. Catching international attention when she was cast as the lead actress in Cameron Mackintosh’s 1989 gamble, Miss Saigon, she received critical acclaim due to her natural stage presence and her distinctively fine and powerful voice. Soft in colour while undeniably robust and capable in range, none of the traits that earned her a long-term spot in the music theatre sky have declined one bit. A remarkable display of perfect technique mixed with the unconstrained passion of her essence, it’s at the very least impressive to witness how she still sounds the same way she did more than 3 decades ago.
An admiring achievement that is not however reserved just for showtunes, as the one-hour-and-half event features a varied repertoire going from pop ballads and dance songs to beautifully arranged new versions of fondly remembered oldies like Lennon’s touching peace-caller Imagine. Accompanied by a rock band, a full-piece string section, one grand piano and three backup singers, the high production standards mirror the size of its stirring song collection, which while ecclectic in its origin, keeps a cohesive ochestral melodramatic style, that way suiting Salonga’s idiosyncratic theatrical sound. Though interesting from an artistic point of view, that may be the only (and tiny) flaw of this concert, as despite the fact that any singer is entitled to try any genre they may fancy, it’s not less true that what this audience is expecting is probably more of those themes that made them join her fandom in the first place.
However, those who are expecting her traditional West End / Broadway highlights can breathe a sigh of relief, as not only the four main classics that turned her into an icon are condensed into a moving and flashy medley, but also a never-heard-before Disney tune, among other treats, is to be enjoyed in full length. Introduced by a compelling personal story, this particular interpretation (and lead-in speech) also serves as a tribute to Great White Way legend Stephen Schwartz – and in a way, summarizes the core of the show: no matter the size of the venue, it manages to bring out a feeling of unique and direct connection, as if through each melody the distance between the artist and the viewer kept fading away, replaced by a strong individual bond shared by both. With simple elegant staging and effective lighting design, which enhances the narrative by sparking the eyes of your own imagination, the fantasy and awe triggered by the experience and saved by the emotion keeps the promise of the show’s title. And contrary to what the tragic heroine concluded, proves that life has not killed the dream we dreamed, but made it true.
Lea Salonga performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 28 June. Upcoming dates and tickets for her next concerts are available on the following link.