MANILA — After 40 years on the stage, starting as a child performer in musicals for Repertory Philippines, one would think we’ve already seen the best that Lea Salonga could offer.
But on the opening night of “Lea Salonga: The 40th Anniversary Concert” — or #LS40 on social media — at her favorite venue, the Plenary Hall of the Philippine International Convention Center, Salonga continued to amaze and even surprise.
After last year’s acclaimed “Songs from the Stage,” which this writer proclaimed then as her “best concert so far,” Salonga returned to the PICC to mark a “milestone moment” with remarkably even clearer tones, perhaps further polished by her latest stint on Broadway in the award-winning revival of “Once on This Island.”
Listening to her first encore number, an effortless “Some Other Time” from Leonard Bernstein’s "On the Town,” gave off some major Barbra Streisand feels — and this after singing for over two hours.
As a concert, “LS40” isn’t as cohesive as “Songs from the Stage” and is more similar to “Playlist,” her 35th anniversary show. This one also featured a mix of show tunes and pop hits with some special surprises befitting the occasion.
One such surprise was Simon Bowman, who played Chris to Salonga’s Kim in the original 1989 West End production of “Miss Saigon.” There was genuine excitement when he joined her in the musical’s most famous songs “Sun and Moon” and “Last Night of the World.”
Like Salonga, Bowman sounded better than ever, retaining much of his vocal power, which was further displayed in his solo spots, George Michael’s “A Different Corner” and Sam Smith’s “The Writing’s on the Wall” from the James Bond movie “Specter.”
Mark Bautista, who also conquered the West End in the Imelda Marcos musical “Here Lies Love,” gamely “Disney-fied” his singing style for “A Whole New World,” which Salonga remarked is “the gift that keeps on giving.”
Bautista, however, was in his element as a crooner in “Smile,” before joining Salonga again for a medley of songs from the band Hotdog as a tribute to the band’s late co-founder, vocalist and songwriter Rene Garcia.
Salonga’s daughter Nicole Chien once again graced the stage, this time with much more confidence, in the upbeat “Shy” from “Once Upon a Mattress,” while Esang de Torres, Salonga’s ward on “The Voice Kids,” reprised her title role in “Matilda” in her solo “Quiet,” then sang “Naughty” as a duet with her coach.
But the real surprise was Salonga herself. She is that rare artist who isn’t content on doing the same things over and over again. In one of her spiels, she told the crowd that they shouldn’t expect to hear her discography because they can just Google that.
She did start off with a definite throwback. After a gorgeous overture of songs closely associated with her from “Tomorrow” from ‘“Annie” to songs from “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables,” performed by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra as conducted by her brother Gerard Salonga, the star of the show emerged on stage with “Ako’y Munting Tinig,” the Tagalog version of her hit “I Am But A Small Voice.”
However, this quickly segued into the anthemic “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” which Salonga sang with pride and defiance.
Her song choices reflected similar themes like Andra Day’s “Rise Up” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” which were given a more intimate arrangement and delivered with note by note precision by Salonga without losing their pop flavor.
She also turned Lady Gaga’s “I’ll Never Love Again” from “A Star is Born” into an 11 o’clock number, but gamely embraced her ‘80s child past with a final wind-up of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” “Faith” and “Let’s Go Crazy” before finally saying goodnight.
But at the same time, she also shared a less exposed facet of her voice when she took on the challenging “Will He Like Me” and “Vanilla Ice Cream” from the 1963 musical “She Loves Me,” showing off her soprano, then followed it up with “Til There Was You” from “The Music Man,” done in that classic Broadway style of singing.
She also continued her penchant for picking songs beyond the usual musical theater staples, like Stephen Sondheim’s poignant “Anyone Can Whistle,” the moving “Unusual Way” from “Nine” and even “Gawin Mo Akong Sining” from Vince de Jesus’ “Himala.”
More than the music, however, “LS40” is also perhaps Salonga’s most personal concert to date, as she opened up about some aspects of her personal life articulately and without becoming overly sentimental.
Indeed, one of the show’s most touching moments was a duet with her brother for their mother Ligaya. Singing a stripped down version of “Together (Wherever We Go)” from “Gypsy,” a musical about a stage mother, Gerard couldn’t help but tear up — a testament to their deep, strong bond as a family.
“LS40,” which will have a second show Saturday, may mark the “middle age” of Salonga’s decorated career, but as the cliché goes, life begins at 40. Still eager to challenge herself, Salonga’s growth as an artist is definitely not done yet.