DIVA TALK: Lea Salonga, Linda Eder and Karen Mason in Song Plus News of LuPone and McGovern

News   DIVA TALK: Lea Salonga, Linda Eder and Karen Mason in Song Plus News of LuPone and McGovern
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony winner Lea Salonga triumphs at Carnegie Hall.
Tony winner Lea Salonga triumphs at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Todd Kaplan

LEA SALONGA at Carnegie Hall

There are few singers in the musical theatre who boast a voice as beautiful as Lea Salonga's. The former Miss Saigon star possesses a pure, rich, creamy tone and exquisite control of her instrument throughout its entire, impressive range. And, on Monday night, in an evening benefiting Diverse City Theater Company, Salonga proved her mettle in a three-hour evening — directed sublimely and with theatrical flare by Richard Jay-Alexander — that featured songs mostly drawn from the musical theatre's past few decades.

Elegantly dressed in a black pantsuit by Rajo Laurel (Carmen Marc Valvo designed Salonga's second-act gown), the Tony Award-winning actress was visibly moved as she made her entrance onto the famed Carnegie Hall stage amid a throng of cheers from the packed house. After opening with Stephen Sondheim's "Another Hundred People," Salonga joked, "I'm so glad you're here to help me remember this night because right now I'm having an out-of-body experience." She introduced musical director-conductor Kevin Stites and the 28-piece orchestra before launching into the beautiful Barry Manilow-Johnny Mercer tune, "When October Goes." Salonga's jazz inflections and open, full tones were reminiscent of some of the great gal singers of the fifties; in fact, hers is such a pliable voice that she can take on several different vocal styles with ease. It is a voice that can croon the sweetest children's lullaby or belt out an emotional Broadway ballad.

Salonga then offered a terrific version of A Chorus Line's "Nothing," adapting the well-known Marvin Hamlisch-Ed Kleban tune to fit her specific heritage: "Maybe it's genetic. They don't have bobsleds in Manila," she sang to a roar of laughter. She then spoke about her audition, at age eight, for the Filipino production of Annie, explaining that after she sang "Tomorrow," those in the room gave the young star-to-be a standing ovation. "I knew right then I was going to like show business," Salonga admitted. She began singing an uptempo version of the Annie anthem, and midway through she was joined by the show's original star, Andrea McArdle, who was dressed in a slinky white gown; the combination of Salonga's lush vocals and McArdle's clear, powerful tones made for an especially exciting finale. Salonga then graciously stepped aside, and McArdle offered a solo version of Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't," belting the Anyone Can Whistle tune with gusto.

Salonga returned to cite the musical influences of her childhood: Olivia Newton-John, the Osmonds, ABBA (after a humorous discussion of the correct pronunciation of karaoke, she asked the audience to join her for a quick a cappella rendition of "Dancing Queen") and the Carpenters. She explained the latter had a tremendous impact on her and her brother Gerard, who is often Salonga's musical director and who penned many of the evening's grand musical arrangements. Salonga paid tribute to the late Karen Carpenter with a wonderful medley of her hits, including "We've Only Just Begun, "I Won't Last a Day Without You" and "Just You"; in fact, as she began singing "We've Only Just Begun," I was struck by just how lovely Salonga's voice can be. A beautiful, almost classical arrangement of "True Colors" preceded two standards: the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me," which featured simple guitar accompaniment, and the 1924 Gus Kahn-Isham Jones classic, "It Had to Be You." A simple, heartfelt rendition of Kander and Ebb's "Married" led to her introduction of husband Robert Chien, and then Salonga delivered a Filipino tune written by godfather Jose Mari Chan, the first person Salonga ever saw perform on the Carnegie stage. Entitled "Hahanapin Ko," Chan's song, said Salonga, "explains what ties all Filipinos, who are away, back to their home." It was one of the most heartfelt offerings of the night, and the audience responded enthusiastically. The actress announced that she and her husband are expecting their first child in May, and she then proceeded to launch into a particularly poignant rendition of Baby's "The Story Goes On." Halfway through the song, original Baby star Liz Callaway joined Salonga, and the soaring sounds of Callaway and Salonga was one of the most exciting vocal moments of the evening. Callaway, who brushed a few tears away, told Salonga that she sounds exactly the same as she did 14 years ago in Miss Saigon, adding with a laugh, "You also have not aged at all, and it's a little irritating!" Salonga and Callaway then re-created Miss Saigon's "I Still Believe," and over a decade later, their rendition of the duet between the ill-fated Kim and the American soldier's new wife Ellen has lost none of its power. In fact, it was the first song of the evening to bring the audience to its feet for a lengthy standing ovation. Callaway then took centerstage for a stentorian version of Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark."

Salonga spoke about the show that made her an international star, Miss Saigon, which brought her an Olivier Award for the London staging and a Tony for her Broadway work. She explained that, at 17, she wasn't quite ready for the sexual aspects of the show and was a bit shocked when she first saw the costume sketches and realized she would have to wear a bikini. In tears she called her father, saying, "They're only going to remember me for wearing a bikini!" Her pragmatic father responded, "They're not going to remember you for wearing that bikini. They're going to remember you for shooting yourself at the end of the show!" Salonga then closed the first half of her solo Carnegie Hall debut with an emotional, goose-bump inducing version of Saigon's "I'd Give My Life for You."

With but one exception — a wonderful, full-length version of "Reflections," the theme song from Disney's "Mulan" film — the second half of the evening featured one gloriously sung theatre tune after the other: Flower Drum Song's "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and "Love, Look Away"; Jesus Christ Superstar's "I Don't Know How to Love Him," which suited Salonga's voice perfectly; Funny Girl's "People," which utilized the original Broadway orchestrations; a lovely medley of Oliver's "Where Is Love?" and "As Long As He Needs Me" that built to a stunning climax; and two songs from Les Misérables. The first Les Miz offering was "On My Own," which Salonga explained was also her audition song for Miss Saigon. After listening to her exciting version of the Alain Boublil-Claude-Michel Schönberg tune, it's easy to understand why she landed the role. Paolo Montalban, who is currently starring in the Paper Mill Playhouse's production of Cinderella, then joined Salonga for a particularly touching version of Les Miz's "A Little Fall of Rain" as well as a solo on "My One and Only Love."

The evening concluded with Salonga's renditions of two songs from Wicked, the Stephen Schwartz musical that the actress said she would love to appear in at some point. She made a case for herself as Glinda with "Popular" — sounding astonishingly similar to Kristin Chenoweth — but a better case for herself as Elphaba with a rousing version of "Defying Gravity" that spectacularly ended the evening and spontaneously brought the crowd to its feet.

The star returned for an encore of Peter Allen's "I Honestly Love You," and then the audience demanded a second. Salonga explained that there was only one piece of music left, "A Whole New World," but the arrangement required another singer. She asked for a volunteer from the audience, and Daniel Berlin, a tall young man who had never previously met Salonga, performed the "Aladdin" tune almost perfectly to the delight of everyone in attendance. It was extremely touching to watch a somewhat nervous Berlin sing with a woman he obviously adores and to see Salonga guide him through the song, tenderly mouthing the lyric to him. It was a truly spirit-raising finale to a wonderful evening, and the crowd was once again on its feet cheering.

LINDA EDER at Carnegie Hall

In her fourth solo evening at Carnegie Hall this past Wednesday, Linda Eder presented a two-act performance entitled By Myself: Celebrating the Music of Judy Garland. Drawn mostly from her newest CD, "By Myself: The Songs of Judy Garland," Eder belted her way through a host of songs performed by the late, great entertainer. Does Eder have Garland's vulnerability and unending emotional depth? No. But does Eder possess one of the most exciting belt voices around? Yes. And, it's that voice — a remarkably rangy instrument that opens at the top to reveal thrilling, vibrato-filled high notes — that stopped the show several times throughout the more than two-hour evening. In the six years since she bowed at Carnegie Hall, Eder has also grown as a performer: She is more confident, more at easy and quite funny in her between-song patter.

Eder, dressed in a mauve gown in the first half and a black one in the second, opened her program with an upbeat pairing of "Almost Like Being in Love" and "This Can't Be Love." After joking, "I can't breathe, and it's not just because of this dress," the former Jekyll & Hyde star said the evening would both celebrate and applaud Garland's musicality and would include several tunes Garland performed at her own famed Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. She then launched into a swinging medley of "The Best Is Yet to Come," "The Man I Love" and "Just in Time." Throughout the evening, Eder spoke much about Garland and how the singer inspired her own career path. Eder also chatted about the men in her life — son Jake, now age six, and new beau Craig — who were both in the sold-out crowd.

The first half also included Eder's takes on "Me and My Shadow," "You Go to My Head" and "The Rainbow's End," a haunting "It Never Was You" and an infectious medley of "The Boy Next Door" and "You Made Me Love You." She then poured out her voice in "By Myself," which closed the first act wonderfully.

Eder began the evening's second half with a rousing medley of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" and "The Trolley Song" and then spoke about a recent visit to the London Palladium — where Garland also triumphed — led by an elderly fan of the late stage and screen star. "It's All for You," "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning" and a sexy "Do It Again" preceded a touch of torch: a great combination of "Stormy Weather" and "The Man That Got Away." "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" led into an understated "Over the Rainbow" that ended on a dreamy high note, but it was a high voltage pairing of "San Francisco" and "Swanee" that brought the crowd to its feet.

Eder's encores continued the excitement: her signature tune "Vienna," which was one of the evening's highlights, and a powerful "Don't Rain on My Parade" were each followed by standing ovations, and another Garland favorite, "Look for the Silver Lining," concluded the evening on an upbeat note. (Eder was backed by a full orchestra, expertly led by musical director John Oddo.)

KAREN MASON at the Encore

Great songs + great arrangements + a great singer = a great evening. It's not the most complicated equation, yet it's one that is often not followed. So, hooray for Karen Mason — and longtime musical director Christopher Denny — for consistently offering well structured, wonderfully performed evenings of song.

I had the chance to catch Mason's newest program, The Sweetest of Nights, last Saturday night at the Encore, the new cabaret on West 47th Street. Looking and sounding better than ever, Mason opened her hour-long set with a terrific rendition of West Side Story's "Something's Coming" before launching into a belty version of Lerner and Loewe's "Almost Like Being in Love." The singing actress explained that the evening would feature songs from all of her solo CDs (including her newest, "The Sweetest of Nights"), joking the concert would be the "boxed set" of her recordings. As a cabaret/concert performer Mason is enjoyable for many reasons: She seems to relish performing: Her joy while delivering "Taking a Chance on Love," which began as a duet for singer and bass and then built to an exciting climax, was palpable. She smartly crafts her concerts to include songs she is known for while also introducing little-known or brand-new works. She also takes chances vocally, belting throughout her range, which makes for exciting listening. And, she is human: when a cell phone rang during the middle of a song, she simply stopped and asked to start again. She wasn't annoyed but she clearly wanted the audience to hear, without interruption, "Cold Enough to Cross," a new song penned by husband Paul Rolnick and Henry Cory. Add a great sense of humor to the mix, and it's clear why Mason's career continues to thrive in clubs and stages across the country.

Other highlights of the evening included the upbeat, humorous Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh ditty, "When in Rome"; fiery renditions of "Maybe This Time" and "The Winner Takes It All" (the latter built to a full-voiced finale); a great rendition of Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance"; and a beautiful medley of Bock and Harnick's "Now I Have Everything" and Kander and Ebb's "Married," which may have been the most moving offering of the night.

Mason returned for an encore of her new CD's title song, Shelly Markham and Judith Viorst's "The Sweetest of Nights and the Finest of Days," a lovely tune and an apt description of the evening itself.

DIVA TIDBITS
Here she is, world! Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, who is currently starring in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, will head the cast of another Stephen Sondheim musical this summer at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. LuPone will join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for three performances of the classic Sondheim-Jule Styne-Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy Aug. 11-13. The Tony and Olivier Award-winning actress will star as the indomitable Mama Rose. Lonny Price will direct the Chicago production, and Paul Gemignani will conduct the famed orchestra. No other casting has been announced. Gypsy will, amazingly, be LuPone's sixth musical at the Ravinia; her previous outings include Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion and Anyone Can Whistle. Gypsy tickets can now be reserved by calling (847) 266-5100 or by visiting www.ravinia.org.

In April 2005 Maureen McGovern, who is currently starring in the tour of Little Women, received a thunderous ovation for her performance of David Friedman's "Help Is On the Way" at the annual Easter Bonnet Competition. McGovern has since recorded the wonderful tune, which was originally penned for the late Nancy LaMott, and the single CD benefits both Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and McGovern's own "Works of Heart" Foundation for Music and Healing. To purchase the beautiful recording, Click Here.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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