Lea Salonga: Broadway star, Disney princess, cabaret chanteuse

Lea Salonga 2
Tony Award-winning Broadway star Lea Salonga brings her cabaret act to the Fairmont’s Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Photos courtesy of Lea Salonga

It’s the day after the Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation, and Lea Salonga, visiting family in the Bay Area, is still glowing because, at the curtain call, she got to hold hands with Shirley Jones.

“Some of the 20somethings there had no idea who Shirley Jones was,” Salonga says. “My jaw dropped on the floor. Come on, people! Watch a rerun of The Partridge Family at the very least. See Oklahoma! or Carousel! She has done Broadway and film and television and she still looks and sounds amazing. If you don’t know Shirley Jones, woe be to you. Those of us from New York all know who she is.”

Salonga is no slouch herself. A Tony winner for Miss Saigon, she is married, has a 5-year-old daughter and makes her home in Manila, in her native Philippines.

She continues to work on stage – her most recent Broadway show was the revival of Les Miserables from 2006 to 2008. Though she’s performed in concert since she was a kid, she’s doing the more mature thing now. With her debut last year at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, she’s officially a cabaret chanteuse.

Lea Salonga 1She’ll make her San Francisco cabaret debut later this month as the season opener for Bay Area Cabaret, now in its second season in the Fairmont Hotel’s venerable Venetian Room. Her original date on Sept. 16 sold out quickly, so a second show, at 5pm on Sept. 17 has been added.

Earlier this year, Salonga turned 40. If it seems she should have hit that mark a while ago, it’s a testament to her already storied career, which became an international success when she was cast as the title role of Miss Saigon at 17.

“Around my birthday, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘If that’s what 40 looks like, bring on 50!’” Salonga says. “I think getting older is great. Actresses worry about people knowing their ages, and I understand that because people are judgmental. But people know my story. I can’t lie about my age. I’m primarily a singer, so age doesn’t matter. The 40s are wonderful so far. You’re young enough to enjoy life, old enough to kick some ass and no one questions you.”

Lea Salonga CD coverSalonga received some glowing reviews for her Carlyle cabaret shows, and she recently released a live CD, recorded in that lovely Manhattan boite, called Lea Salonga: The Journey So Far. The disc surveys her entire career, including her gigs as the singing voice for Disney princesses Jasmine (in Aladdin) and Mulan (in the movie of the same name).

Recently dubbed a Disney Legend, Salonga and fellow princess voices Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog), Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid) and Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast), received awards and sang their signature songs.

Salonga’s daughter was in princess heaven at the ceremony, scoring autographs from all the famous ladies – including her own mother. “She was looking up at me saying, ‘Mommy sign my book?’ I said, ‘Honey, I live with you. I can sign your book any time.’ But I thought that was sweet. I actually matter to my daughter!”

In addition to her concert and cabaret work, Salonga is heading back to the musical theater stage with a show called Allegiance with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo and a book by Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. The show, set during the Japanese internment during World War II, will open at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in the summer of 2012.

The musical had a workshop in New York earlier this summer, and the cast included George Takei and Telly Leung. Salonga says the workshop “went really well.” And the really great thing, she says: “My mother really liked it and loved the music. She said based on the music alone the show will fly. Believe me, she minces no words if she thinks something is bad. But this is a show she enjoyed. We’re all excited about the show. I consider myself a transplanted New Yorker, so I’d be very happy if the show ended up there.”

Lea Salonga is in concert as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at 8pm Sept. 16 (SOLD OUT) and at 5pm Sept. 17 in the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room, 950 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $60 general with discounts for subscribers and those younger than 18. Call 415-392-4400 or visit www.bayareacabaret.org.

[bonus video]
Here’s Lea Salonga singing “Reflection” from Mulan at the Disney Legends award ceremony last month at the D23 Expo.

From stage to screen, in comes Company

Company cast photo

Bobby baby bobby bubbe: The starry cast of the New York Philharmonic’s Company, which hits movie screens across the nation. Photo courtesy of the New York Philharmonic. Below: Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose (portrait) and Rose (far left), Christina Hendricks and Chryssie Whitehead perform “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”


After performing on the Tony Awards last Sunday with her fellow Company cast members, Anika Noni Rose, all glammed out in a gorgeous white gown, devoured a giant plate of nachos.

The Tony Award-winning actor laughs at the thought of herself devouring the late-night snack in all her red-carpet glory. “There I was grubbing on nachos. They were delicious.” And how do we know that Rose enjoyed the snack? She posted a photo of the meal on her Twitter feed (@AnikaNoniRose).

Anika Noni Rose

Rose, 38, is having a good week. The American Conservatory Theater-trained actor enjoyed the Tony Awards ceremony – one of the best I’ve seen in years” – because, as she puts it, “I was there to have fun, put on some pretty clothes and root for my friends. You see people you don’t get to see very often, and you meet some fantastic people. I met (best actor winner) Mark Rylance, who is just amazing. God took amazing and put skin on it. That’s Mark Rylance. I met(best actress nominee) Patina Miller and got to hang out with (best actress winner) Sutton Foster, who I’ve known for years but never get to see. I’m an investor in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but that was the first time I got to meet Daniel Radcliffe, who could not be lovelier. And he’s so good in the show.”

And that was just Sunday night.

The rest of the week, Rose will be making a splash across the country. She’s part of a starry cast that the New York Philharmonic pulled together for three concerts Stephen Sondheim’s Company presented last April but forever preserved in an HD broadcast to be screened in movie theaters from coast to coast.

The first screenings start Tuesday, June 15. At San Francisco’s Embarcadero Cinema, for instance, it screens June 15, 16 and 19, but there are also screenings in Cupertino, Rohnert Park, Napa, Pleasant Hill, Mill Valley, Sausalito, Walnut Creek, San Rafael, San Jose, Hayward and many more. As you can see, this Company is inviting lots of company.

Rose plays Marta, one of the many girlfriends of the main character, Bobby (played by stellar Tony host Neil Patrick Harris. Her big number is “Another Hundred People,” and in a tiny bit of delicious irony, the woman who debuted the song in the original 1971 Broadway production, Pamela Myers, is now on stage at Rose’s old stomping grounds as an ensemble member in ACT’s Tales of the City (and she’s wonderful).

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This is only the second time Rose, a 2004 Tony winner for best featured actress in Caroline, or Change, has performed Sondheim on stage (the first was a tune from Sunday in the Park with George at a tribute to George C. Wolfe), and she says, learning the ins and outs of Sondheim is “no walk in the park,” especially when, like the Company cast, you have a week and two days of rehearsal.

“Being in this show was like being shot out of a cannon,” Rose says on the phone from New York. “It ended up being a spectacular experience because, to a one, we were surrounded by brilliant, caring, lovely, fun, funny, smart professionals. No one brought nasty behavior, no one brought an ego to rehearsal. It was fantastic to be with each other.”

No egos? That’s impressive, especially given the pedigree of a cast that includes current “it” boy Harris (who was filming his sitcom, How I Met Your Mother in LA), Tony-winning diva Patti LuPone, TV’s favorite fake pundit Stephen Colbert, Mad Men vamp Christina Hendricks and Tony-winner Katie Finneran (from last season’s revival of Promises, Promises).

Because the busy actors were busy acting in all their various projects, rehearsals were … interesting. Not everybody was actually in the same room until dress rehearsal, which happened to be two hours before the opening-night performance. But director Lonny Price hired musical theater students to stand in and learn the parts for the benefit of the principal actors who were able to show up.

Rose says the pressure was on, and what could have been a disaster was a triumph. “It clicked because it had to,” she says. “Thank God for training and professionalism and dedication. It made for a pretty wrinkle-free production.”

She was far from embarrassed. The show opened on a Thursday and repeated Friday and twice on Saturday. “By Saturday night,” Rose says, we were brilliant.”

Rose was involved in a previous live broadcast into movie theaters, only that one was truly live from Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Rose was Juliet to Orlando Bloom’s Romeo in a Los Angeles Philharmonic evening of Tchaikovsky music.

“I think these broadcasts are wonderful,” she says. “They allow people access who wouldn’t otherwise get to see these things. And people can’t always afford a ticket to a show, never mind a ticket to the city, a hotel room, food, car rental. If you’re a family, it’s not even just you anymore. They also welcome people to an art form who might not think it’s for them, then they see it actually is for them and want to see the live thing. It’s a welcome mat to our art form, especially for people who might never have seen a live performance before. They see what it is we do, makes it familiar to them. It’s not so scary, not really stepping out of their realm.”


Find a Company screening at a theater near you. Click here.

Here’s the trailer

The blossoming of Anika Noni Rose

Anika Noni Rose

Watching Anika Noni Rose (seen above, photo by Andrew Macpherson) on the cabaret stage, you sense a superstar in the making.

The gorgeous Rose, all of 38, has already made a name for herself in the theater, winning the Tony Award for her performance in the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori masterwork Caroline, or Change. On screen, she provided the voice of Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess (in The Princess and the Frog) and she smooched and sang with Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce in Dreamgirls.

She has conquered stage, screen and TV (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, The Good Wife) – the cabaret stage is about the only performance arena she hasn’t yet made her own. But she’s working on it. In only her second solo cabaret act – her first in San Francisco – Rose demonstrated a sassy onstage persona, an appealing voice and a vintage collection of songs.

Part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel, Rose’s concert, which she had presented earlier this month at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook concert series, served a tribute to her late grandmother. The songs, mainly from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, showcased Rose’s high, bright soprano and her charming, sassy way with a lyric.

Looking absolutely gorgeous in a sparkly gold dress, Rose opened the show in the audience, inviting audience members to “Come On-a My House” while pianist/music director Eugene Gwozdz provided playful accompaniment from the smalls stage.

Though she warned that she wasn’t a “patter girl,” Rose’s between-song comments were actually a highlight of the hour-long concert. She said that being in San Francisco was “like coming home” because of the time she spent here in grad school at American Conservatory Theater (indeed, Carey Perloff, ACT’s artistic director, was at a table near the stage). In describing the songs to follow, she described them as songs she grew up with because they were her grandmother’s favorites. She also took a moment to diss popular music: “I don’t know if there’s anything on the radio right now we’ll be singing in 50 years.”

Some of her show’s highlights include Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to Be Evil,” “He’s Funny That Way” (a Daniels/Whiting hit for Billie Holiday), Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (a Peggy Lee/Benny Goodman hit) and a spirited “Relax Max,” a Dinah Washington tune that involved some slapstick from pianist Gwozdz.

Like Diana Ross, Rose has a beautiful, light tone that is brightest in the upper registers and all but disappears in the lower. Miss Rose uses her voice more effectively than Miss Ross often does, but her song choices don’t always highlight the best part of her voice. For instance, the bluesier Harold Arlen numbers “Blues in the Night” and “When the Sun Comes Out” both showed Rose’s limitations more than her strengths, though the final note of the set-ending “When the Sun Comes Out” was the evening’s most satisfying big, old Broadway belter moment.

Rose seemed to have fun in her cabaret moment, especially on numbers like “Goody Goody” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (incorporating some clever flavors of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf), and though the show, as Rose promised, wasn’t heavy on emotion, she came close with an introspective “Willow Weep for Me.”

Self-deprecating and diva-ish, Rose can joke about herself and her cabaret fears (“It’s scary – it’s just me, no character”) one minute and yell at the bartenders in the back of the room the next for rattling (very loudly) their ice buckets during her numbers. She’s got a lot of star power and charisma – the next time she brings us a cabaret show, chances are pretty good it will be even better than this one.



Upcoming for Bay Area Cabaret:

March 1, Patti LuPone in conversation with Steven Winn (presented in association with City Arts & Lectures) at the Palace of Fine Arts

March 13, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at the Venetian Room (5pm show sold out, tickets still available for 7:30pm)

May 1, Bay Area Teen Idol singing contest, a benefit for the San Francisco Arts Education Project at the Venetian Room

May 14, Lillias White’s tribute to Cy Coleman at the Venetian Room

Visit www.bayareacabaret.org or call City Box Office at 415-392-4400.


Broadway `Cat’ headed for big screen?

Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard in the Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo by the New York Times

Interesting article in Variety about the recent Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose.

Not surprisingly, this camera-ready cast may be taking the play to the big screen. Of course, Cat has already prowled the cinema once before: with Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Elizabeth Taylor in 1958.

The Broadway production, which concludes on June 22, recouped its $2.1 million investment and is happily headed into profit.

Producer Stephen Byrd, who is making noise about the Cat movie, is also considering a simulcast of a live performance of of the play to be shown in Regal Cinemas across the country.

Read the Variety article here.

In the `Dreamgirls’ groove

As I understand it, my responsibility as a blogger is that elusive thing called BUZZ.

That said, let me buzz a little about Dreamgirls, which I saw last week after spending much of the year in jittery anticipation of its arrival.

First off, I love that the movie is dedicated to the memory of Michael Bennett, the director and co-producer/co-choreographer of the original 1981 Broadway production. Bennett’s fluid style was all over Dreamgirls in the way songs, scenes and dialogue flowed seamlessly, one into the other.

I’m not going to do a full-on review of Bill Condon’s movie except to say that it’s good, and parts of it are great. On the continuum of recent Broadway-to-movie adaptations, it’s not as good as Chicago, but it’s a whole lot better than Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera.

Jennifer Hudson (left) as Effie Melody White steals the show (as any good Effie should — this really is her story) and wipes the floor with Miss Beyonce, who couldn’t look more fabulous. But let me say that she and Diana Ross have more in common than they know.

American Conservatory Theater grad Anika Noni Rose is pretty wonderful, as is Eddie Murphy, whose final musical number is fantastic

Amid all the flash and spectacle of Dreamgirls, there are still issues: is this a real-life drama set in the music industry with lots of musical numbers? Or is this a full-on musical where people .burst into song when they might otherwise speak like normal people?

There’s some squeamishness about these issues in Dreamgirls, and all the fancy editing and flashing lights in the world can’t disguise that.

Still, it’s pretty great to be discussing a big musical this holiday season, so go see Dreamgirls and turn it into a box-office success so they’ll keep turning Broadway shows into movies.

In fact, you can see Dreamgirls early — if you want to pony up $25 (which includes a souvenir program) — when it opens Dec. 15 at the Metreon in San Francisco as part of a limited engagement “road show” in SF, New York and Los Angeles. Click here for more information.