Few performers would have the guts to open their debut cabaret with a Schubert aria — in German, no less — before seguing into Aretha Franklin. Then again, few performers are like Phillipa Soo, the prodigiously talented 25-year-old actress who brings audiences to tears nightly with her shattering work as Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway hit Hamilton. Schubert and Aretha are an unlikely pairing, but they make up the soundtrack of Soo's upbringing.
The goal for her hourlong set at Feinstein's/54 Below, her first-ever solo concert, was to "make you feel like you're in my living room." Performing some of her favorite tunes, ranging from American Songbook standards to newer material by rising composers, Soo delivered on her promise. Anyone who's ever been to the venue knows how intimate it is, but the vivacious Soo, who seemed like she's been doing this all her life, made it feel like we were sitting around the piano at her house, sharing drinks. Soo's cabaret was the kind of show that made concertgoers wish they could be her friend.
Rodgers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic?" quickly followed Franklin's "House That Jack Built," expertly showcasing the performer's range and versatility. She can belt like the best of them before seamlessly shifting into a smoky style of jazz. Soo's voice effortlessly spans the gamut of styles.
She also knows how to tell a story, in both speech and song. Her patter was wry and hilarious, filled with innocence and charm. The discovery of how she realized she was half-Chinese, for example, was priceless, as was her account of arriving in New York for drama school with two heavy suitcases, and finding that she was actually in Newark. Meanwhile, her musical deliveries of story-songs like Dar Williams' "The Babysitter's Here," Shaina Taub's "The Tale of Bear and Otter," and "Laurie's Song" from Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land were undeniably moving and filled with emotion.
There were three unforgettable highlights, starting with "No One Else," a brave, haunting solo she sang nightly during her run in Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. That one came with goosebumps. Then there was a terrifically exciting duet with Broadway vet Steven Pasquale as they covered Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." That one blew the roof off the venue. Finally, there was a thrilling cover of Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," complete with audience participation. That one made us wish she'd never leave the stage. Soo's five-member band, led by Comet musical director Or Matias, was perfectly in sync with their front woman.
While it's hard not to wish she sang one of her fiery Hamilton numbers (if only to hear them live again, since tickets to that show are scarce), it was nice getting to know the real Phillipa Soo for a change. She is set to reprise this concert on October 22 at 11:30pm, and if last night's vociferous reaction was any indication, she'll very likely be back soon for even more.
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