Lea Salonga has her fans. She also has some superfans, the ones who yell, “I love you Lea!” at almost every opportunity. If that wasn’t enough, there are a couple of starstruck superfans who occasionally yell something indecipherable: Salonga simply smiles, laughs it off, and asks what pretty much everyone else is thinking at that moment: “What was that?” There was a sizeable orchestra, ably conducted by Salonga’s younger brother, Gerard, the resident conductor of the Malaysian Philharmonic, with Ellie Verkerk at the piano – she has previously worked on the musical Six as well as productions by the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk.
Her rise to fame is well documented, and well known, at least within the theatre community in Britain: the producers of Miss Saigon had to broaden their search for an East Asian actress to play the leading role of Kim, a seventeen-year-old from Vietnam. Salonga, seventeen at the time, got the job, and won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1990. Today, her Twitter account has over five-and-a-half million followers. The last time she played the Royal Albert Hall was for Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert, a 1995 event marking that show’s tenth anniversary in London. Let’s just say I hope she doesn’t leave it nearly as long before she visits again.
There was a very broad mix of songs in a setlist that included Stephen Sondheim, John Lennon, Stephen Schwartz and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The finale was surprising to say the least: for someone known for Miss Saigon, Les Misérables and voicing Princess Jasmine in the Disney Corporation’s motion picture Aladdin, a medley comprised of boyband chart-toppers was frankly unexpected. It worked, though, starting with ‘Back For Good’ by Take That and (eventually) rounding things off with a rendition of ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ by One Direction (yes, really). When in Rome, do as the Romans do: when in Britain, sing what the Brits sing.
Flanked by background vocalists Sarah Galbraith, Adrian Hansel and Steph Parry, Salonga was palpably loving every moment of the evening, which doubtless rubbed off on a receptive audience. Given her broad definition of ‘key workers’, which encompassed not only personnel in the health and social care sectors, but (amongst others) supermarket employees and Deliveroo riders, the latter being a new discovery to Salonga, a tribute to everyone who continued working during public health restrictions was very inclusive indeed.
Inclusivity was the name of the game in more ways than one – a big cheer went up from the knowledgeable Albert Hall audience when she announced she was about to sing a showtune from Dear Evan Hansen, and some background details were duly supplied anyway just in case there were people who weren’t familiar with it. But there were also some obscure numbers thrown in (I’d tell you what they were if only I could), as well as forays into chart music. Salonga can do it all, including John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in the first half, and an acoustic arrangement, with Chris Allard on guitar, of ‘Toxic’, made famous by Britney Spears but actually written (yes, I did look this up) by a Swedish songwriting duo called Bloodshy & Avant, working alongside Cathy Dennis (who also co-wrote ‘I Kissed A Girl’, made famous by Katy Perry) and Henrik Jonback.
“We are aware of the situation,” Salonga smiled, having taken the audience through anything and everything except the likes of ‘I’d Give My Life For You’ from Miss Saigon and probably the most well-known song in Disney’s Aladdin, ‘A Whole New World’. And then like buses, they all came at once. Why not save the best for last? This wonderful evening is one I’d happily enjoy all over again. A flawless concert, with fun and poignancy in equal measure.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Musical theatre royalty – and two-time Disney Princess – Lea Salonga is coming to the Royal Albert Hall with her brand-new tour Dream Again.
Lea Salonga claimed her theatrical crown aged just 18 when she created the role of Kim in the epic musical Miss Saigon in the West End and subsequently on Broadway. She then went on to be the first actress of Asian descent to play both Eponine and Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway.