By Kevin Rolfe
When I saw the 2019 Deer Valley Music Festival Utah Symphony summer lineup, one of the first names that stuck out was Renée Elise Goldsberry. Renée has had an extensive career on Broadway, but the reason she is headlining this concert is due to her originating the role of Angelica Schuyler in the smash-hit musical, Hamilton. Ever heard of it? Not only did she originate that role, but she won a Drama Desk, Grammy and Tony Award for her performance. So I knew when her name was announced, I knew that I had to be at the Snow Park Outdoor Amphitheater to see this performance. I’m so glad I didn’t miss this.
Before I get into Renée’s performance, I need to discuss the Utah Symphony. We’re pretty lucky to have an orchestra like this. I’m amazed at the talent within this ensemble. One of these days I need to get in there and see how amazing each individual is that make up this versatile orchestra. But as a collective they’re flawless. And they do so much! The night before this they were performing the songs of Disney. And a week prior they were performing the score to E.T. while the movie was playing! Do you understand the precision needed to pull that off?! I had a friend there who told me that they were so spot on he forgot the music was being played live. They’re playing three times a week and each performance is a new piece of music. It’s amazing! I have never seen the Utah Symphony and thought, “Meh, that was alright.”. Every time I become more and more impressed with what they do and how they sound. If you’ve never seen them, you need to. Just close your eyes and point. Whatever show that lands on, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Renée was masterful in the construction of her setlist. The first half of the show was mixed with songs from the greatest artists and songwriters. She opened the show with a medley of “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” a Barbara Streisand classic and from the musical of the same name and “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. I was up near the stage taking pictures and I could see the immediate joy in people’s faces as she began her show. And as she began to sing these songs the delight in the faces near me began to grow. She moved on to her next song “People Get Ready” which has been performed by everyone from U2 to Rod Stewart to Bob Marley. I never tire of hearing that song. And the beauty of Renée’s performance was no exception. She also performed moving and innovative arrangements of “We Can Work it Out” by The Beatles and the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
One of my favorite songs of the entire evening, but most definitely my favorite of the first half was Goldsberry’s performance of “Up to the Mountain”. This song was penned by Patty Griffin as a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. This song stirred the soul and moved the spirit. If you’ve never heard this song I strongly suggest you go listen to it. I could feel the disappointingly chatty audience silenced by this piece. All eyes and ears were on the stage. Goldsberry’s vocals mixed with the voices of her back up singers created a memorable moment, to say the least. By the end of the song, I could see several people wiping tears from their face. And the applause was different than you’d expect. It wasn’t a roar of an ovation. It was almost done with purpose. The sound of that applause was communicating more than just approval of the performance but also the approval of the message and the tribute to MLK.
Renée Elise Goldsberry told a funny story about how Lin Manuel Miranda shared a voicemail with her from the great Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul mentioned to Miranda’s voicemail that she lived in the same neighborhood as Goldsberry’s father. She proceeded to ask for tickets to Hamilton. Renée mentioned to her knowledge, Ms. Franklin never saw Hamilton and she was unfortunate to have never met Aretha. But she joked that the Queen of Soul dropped her name to get tickets. It was a funny story and a fun tribute.
Now, folks, we need to discuss some concert etiquette. I know this concert is outside. I know you can bring food and drinks in. But this is not a concert in the park! We had a Tony Award-winning artist on that stage and as she’s finishing up her final song of the first act people were getting up and headed to get food or to the bathroom. This is happening while Renée Elise Goldsberry was still onstage! I don’t get it. If this was Abravanel Hall or The Capitol Theater this would never happen. I get that this concert is a more casual setting, but it’s rude. You’re being rude. Same with those who talk the whole time. If you’re louder than the performer, you’re talking too loud. It was so strange, I was sitting by people who would talk whenever Goldsberry would sing, but shut up when she spoke. Now don’t get me wrong, she’s an entertaining and engaging storyteller, but is that why you paid to come to this show? We just need to be a little better to these artists. Are you the same people who were called out for checking the Utah Jazz score in the middle of Hamilton? Please respect what’s happening on that stage. Wait thirty more seconds to get up and start walking off. That’s it. Zip your lips or go to concessions to have a long-winded conversation. Most of the people going to these shows are great. It’s the loud few that can ruin it. We can do better. We should do better. Ok, end of rant.
As good as the first half was, it was the second half of this concert that people were truly there to see. Renée Elise Goldsberry is a Broadway star. An award-winning Broadway star. So when she got to her the musical theater segment of her show I could visibly see people sitting up in their chairs or blankets. I could see people looking at each other saying “Here we go!”. There was a buzz in the air. I must admit, I was right there with them, I was really excited for this part of the concert. As amazing as everything had been up to this point, this was why I was so excited to cover this show.
Goldsberry started things off with the beautiful “Shadowland” from Disney’s The Lion King. Renée shared with us that the role of Nala was her first job on Broadway. I remember when the stage version of The Lion King came out and thinking that “Shadowland” was one of the best songs added to the piece. She performed it just as beautiful as I had hoped. That could have been the show stopper of the night, but things were about to go up a notch.
Now if the Broadway segment was what people were waiting for it was for one very specific reason. Hamilton. If you haven’t heard of the musical Hamilton well I don’t know what to tell you. I hope that rock you’re living under is comfortable. I have yet to see this smash hit, history-making musical, so this performance was as close as I’ll get for a while. And I was not disappointed in the slightest. First Renée Elise Goldsberry shared with us that people love to tell her with pride that they’ve seen Hamilton and how many times. She asked the crowd if they had seen Hamilton and I would say the majority applauded in the affirmative. She expressed that one of the greatest blessings of having been cast as Angelica Schuyler is having the kinds of moments where she’d be able to go to places she never thought she’d be. She thanked the crowd for having her. She then invited the audience to sing along if they knew the song. She then began singing “Satisfied”. People were giddy. And in the moments when she’d sing “A toast to the groom.” the audience would follow with, “To the groom!” as it is performed in the musical. She performed flawlessly and up to that point, she received her largest ovation of the night. And rightfully so. I don’t know how she sang all those lyrics and rapped so fast at this altitude! If she flubbed or missed a word I sure didn’t hear it. It was amazing.
Goldsberry kept things going brining in her backup singers with “Schuyler Sisters”. This really got the crowd going. Blankets full of girls who were now standing up and singing every word, sometimes taking turns. The harmonies were incredible and the performance left no question to why Renée won the Tony.
Renée Elise Goldsberry closed out her set with a medley from the musical Rent, a show that she states as impactful as Hamilton was. She sang parts of “Without You” and blended that into “No Day But Today”. Those are some of the best and underrated songs from Rent and it was the perfect way for her to leave the stage. I caught myself a few times before I just started singing along. I suppose it would have been ok, but I wanted to hear her sing more than I wanted to sing myself.
Renée returned with two more songs. No one there to see her sing songs from Hamilton would leave unsatisfied as she performed “It’s Quiet Uptown”. It was my favorite moment of the night. The song was powerfully performed and you’d think Golsdberry had only been singing this song for a little while. But we know she’s sung it thousands of times. But you’d never know. It was so fresh and so carefully delivered. That’s how you know someone is a true pro.
The night ended with an upbeat rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. There was a clear theme of positivity and optimism throughout the concert. “I Can See Clearly”, “We Can Work it Out”, and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are just a few of the songs that lead us through a night where we felt like there are positive things to see in this chaotic world. Renée Elise Goldsberry thanked us many times for allowing her to come to Utah to perform for us. But if you were there seeing her with her exceptional band and our amazing Utah Symphony you know that the pleasure was absolutely ours.