Review by MARILYN LESTER**** Prompted by a hugely successful run a year ago at Feinstein’s/54 Below, the immensely popular Lea Salonga returns for an Encore, fueled by the adoration and appreciation of a loyal fan base. This devotion is completely understandable; Salonga is not only talented, but comes across as a very authentic and likable individual. It’s refreshing, too, that the show isn’t particularly themed or over-constructed. Encore is a well-thought-out package of entertainment, delivered without artifice and set up in a straightforward manner.
Starting off with a nod to “the greatest city in the world,” Salonga performed a stately and classic “Manhattan” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart), followed by another standard, “My Foolish Heart” (Victor Young/Ned Washington) with some nice, creative phrasing bordering on the jazz idiom. Later in the set Salonga, also deviated from norms in singing the first several bars of “Nice Work if You Can Get It” (George and Ira Gershwin) as a slow ballad. Salonga’s approach is somewhat understated overall. In fact, she presents an intellectual persona, without being off-putting, but rather, paradoxically welcoming. When she launches into patter, it’s natural and often amusing. Touting the club’s food and drink as if from one friend advising another, she quips, “The more you drink, the better I sound.” Salonga needn’t worry about plying her audience with drink to appreciate her talent. The voice is solid and she knows how to use it to best advantage to tell the story. If she’s surprisingly low-key, she’s also not without power and punch. What’s more, Salonga knows when the moment is right to crescendo and hit home the point.
As with so many performers these days, Salonga acknowledges the “difficult times” we live in and identifies them as an opportunity to use art as a method of dealing with and coping. Before beginning Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” she explained the the song was inspired by the songwriter learning of an incident in the American civil rights movement. This number smoothly and effectively segued into “A Quiet Thing” (John Kander/Fred Ebb). Similarly, another pair of songs slid from one to the other seamlessly: “A Song for You” (Leon Russell) with “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (Mike Reid/Allen Shamblin). The latter featured excellent guitar accompaniment, with some creative use of the instrument percussively by Jack Cavari. Fearlessly admitting to being 46 years old and sharing her personal story of motherhood to an 11-year old, Salonga sings a poignant, beautiful “I Won’t Mind” ( Jeff Blumenkrantz /Annie Kessler/Libby Saines) to the soft and lyrical piano accompaniment of music director Jeff Harris.
The song choices are eclectic and range from the standards to pop, such as Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” John Legend’s “All of Me,” and ”Blurred Lines” (Robin Thicke/Cliff Harris, Jr./Pharrell Williams). Salonga’s greatest hits medley soars, as does the encore, another seamless pairing, this of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (Michel Legrand/Marilyn and Alan Bergman) melting into “How Deep is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky)?” (Irving Berlin). She’s sly about the encore, joking about false endings, comically chiding her audience with, “Told you!” when she began to sing it. Salonga’s audience would surely have stayed for the duration if allowed. Such admiration for a performer isn’t without a basis. Salonga is an accessible entertainer who takes great care not to disappoint.
Lea Salonga perform every night at 7 pm through May 22, with an additional late show (9:30) on Saturday, May 20 at Feinstein’s/54 Below, located at 254 West 54 Street, Manhattan. Venue website: www.54below.com