By JESSICA NEU
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of seeing Norm Lewis at the Trust Cabaret, where he performed the Johnny Mathis version of the song “Misty.” Yesterday, backed by a 3-piece band and the incomparable Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Tony Award-winning actress Renee Elise Goldsberry also performed “Misty.” I described Lewis’ performance as the hug I did not know I needed. If Lewis’s performance was a hug, Goldsberry was the gut punch of motivational spark to leave Heinz Hall and “work!” (Hamilton pun intended).
Goldsberry performed an intelligent combination of popular, protest, musical theater, and original songs that demonstrated her incredible vocal range, ability, and musicality. She could feel the music in her soul as she effervescently moved throughout the stage, absorbing the talent of each musician and backup vocalist with whom she shared the stage.
Best known for her role as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton, Goldsberry began the show by situating her performances in a historical context. She explained that she began performing in concert halls in 2017 when the world was consumed by hate and fear-mongering. Noting the media’s propensity to influence society’s thoughts and opinions, Goldsberry purposefully made her live shows represent a space that is a “blatant attempt to manipulate audiences into falling back in love with love.” She noted that her daughter once asked why there are so many songs about love, to which she replied, “that’s like me asking you why are you sitting over there breathing?” “Love is what we do to move us forward no matter who you are or where you live,” Goldsberry added. She truly embodied this theme of love throughout her show. Her warm and spunky personality became a personification of love, acceptance, and joy as she effortlessly performed such protest songs as Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain,” written in support of Dr. Martin Luther King. She connected “Mountain” to a call-and-response song from the African-American a cappella ensemble, “Sweet Honey and the Rock,” transforming Heinz Hall into a Baptist Church.
Goldsberry then began her stunning rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Lord Protect My Children.” She poignantly noted that she typically tells a charmingly anecdotal story about her children before conquering the song. Still, she said how, as she went to post on social media after her last performance in Kansas City, she was inundated with information about the shooting of teenager Ralph Yarl. Consequently, Goldsberry dedicated this song to all children instead of telling a story of her own kids.
Before intermission, Goldsberry told how her dear friend and Hamilton creator, Lin Manuel-Miranda, came running up to her one day during rehearsals to share a voicemail he received. The message was from Aretha Franklin, noting that she lived near Goldsberry’s father and was asking for tickets to see Hamilton. Goldsberry’s endearing personality shone brightly as she told this hilarious story, resulting in Franklin never coming to see Hamilton¸, but the fact that she said Goldsberry’s name in the voicemail was the highlight of her life. Goldsberry then performed a triumphant version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” finding a way to make the frequently covered song fresh and unique.
The second act was a master class in vocal performance and musical theater genius. She executed Carmen Jones’ challenging “Beat Out That Rhythm” with unparalleled poise and control. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Goldsberry proudly exclaimed that her undergrad speech and voice teacher was in the audience. What a gift to her teacher to demonstrate what she learned in their class and how she has taken those lessons and perfected the craft of vocal performance in a way few have before.
As Goldsberry entered the musical theater portion of the show, she encouraged the audience no continue to follow their dreams regardless of any setbacks or how quickly their peers reach their own achievements. “You will hear more no’s than yesses and even more ‘not quite yet’s’ in life,” she preached. “Make sure that you invest in other areas of your life and that you always have somewhere just as beautiful as where you are now to go home to,” she added.
The culmination of the “not quite yets” led Goldsberry to Los Angeles in the late 1990s to be in a touring production of Dreamgirls. On September 11, 2001, she was scheduled to audition for Broadway’s The Lion King. The audition was delayed by two days, but Goldsberry ultimately landed the role of Nala. The opportunity sent her back to New York City, where she has stayed since 2002, earning roles in the final cast of Rent and originating the role of the eldest Schuyler sister in Hamilton. Thanks to Disney Plus, I have watched Goldsberry perform in Hamilton dozens of times. I have also had the pleasure of seeing original members of Rent perform pieces from the show live. Nothing compares to Goldsberry’s performances. She is truly a once-in-a-lifetime vocalist and performer. She brought “Satisfied” to life with help from the audience and belted out “The Schuyler Sisters” with support from her backup singers/sisters. Concluding with a tear-jerking rendition of “Finale B” from Rent reminds us that we encounter some amazing attributes in life, but love is the greatest.
The exclamation mark on the evening came as a I stood outside the stage door with about 30 others awaiting Goldsberry’s exit from Heinz Hall. She emerged around 11 pm, and the warmth she projected on stage exuded from her in-person presence. She did not just talk to fans; she held their hands while she spoke to them, never losing eye contact and offering to take pictures before any fan could even ask—a truly remarkable human both on-stage and off. The world could certainly use more love right now, but we also need the light of Renee Elise Goldsberry.
Remaining performanceds are Saturday, May 12th at 8 pm and Sunday, May 13th at 2:30 pm. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.pittsburghsymphony.org/production/77370/list_performances