BWW Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Star Hailey Kilgore Shines In Her Solo Debut at Feinstein's/54 Below
Having made her Broadway debut in 2017 as Ti Moune in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, the Feinstein's/54 Below audience cheered Hailey Kilgore as she ran onstage in a green, flowing dress for her opening number, "The Wizard and I," announcing in song this is what she's "waited for since birth!" Making her solo debut on Jan. 30, her enthusiasm was infectious, her voice shimmered through each sustained note, and even those who knew her seemed surprised at the volume and strength that carried each song.
Kilgore balanced her proud vocal strength with an endearing youthfulness, and each song was an impeccable balance of innocence and a mature poise. For her show-stopping notes and quick vibrato that highlighted each tone, even the drummer, Sean McDaniel, seemed to watch her in awe.
The act featured a wide range of songs, which Kilgore described as inspiring her aspiration to be on stage. With musical direction by Ted Arthur, most of her songs were from recognizable contemporary Broadway hits, ranging from Jason Robert Brown to Jonathan Larson, with some pop surprises, like Sara Bareilles' "King of Anything."
Throughout the night, she was conversational, honest, friendly, and open, bursting with enthusiasm as she proudly declared, "This is my first solo show, you guys! So, let's have some fun." According to Kilgore, she was singing before she was talking, and you can tell how in love she is with the words she sings, the music, the world of the stage, and the art of performing. She introduced "Still Hurting" from Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST FIVE YEARS, mentioning that where she grew up, "every girl---I mean every girl---sang this." The lights brightened to a sunny yellow as she sang in her next song, "Before It's Over" from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's DOGFIGHT, "happy that it happened / happy that I came /happy that I'm here." With her hopeful vulnerability, she sings, "there's so much to do before it's over."
The audience was overjoyed as she was joined by her guest star: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND co-star Isaac Powell. They joined in a riveting duet, "Shallow," from the recent A STAR IS BORN adaptation starring Lady Gaga. Another highlight of the evening was when Kilgore invited Laurissa "LaLa" Romain to the stage for "Take Me Or Leave Me" from RENT. Both women had wonderful, playful chemistry as Kilgore sang back, "don't compromise 'cause this girl satisfies."
The evening went on to satisfy as Kilgore shifted gears to tell the audience more about her personal story, having been adopted and how she personally related to Ti Moune. Kilgore grew up in Humble, Texas, and was adopted at birth and raised by her parents in the small town of Happy Valley, Oregon. Her personal story brought Kilgore herself, and audience members to tears when she sang The Beatles' "Blackbird," accompanied by a truly touching personal story. Her aunt and uncle were seated in the front row, and as she talked about her parents struggling with having a child, she told the story of herself, a girl "who would grow up to break all the rules." She announced that she had never sung the song in public, and she was so excited to be singing it to her family for the first time. It was a heartfelt and beautiful version of the classic song that left the audience speechless.
"Blackbird" was immediately followed by "For Forever" (DEAR EVAN HANSEN) with her eyes remaining closed, clearly moved by the music. And as we had all hoped for, one of the final numbers was "Waiting For Life To Begin" from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, which she introduced with, "I guess every girl who plays this role has to sing this song, right?" But before she started the song, she stopped herself again.
"You know, behind every performer is an incredible understudy or swing." The audience was thrilled when she announced her two understudies, Anna Uzele and Courtnee Carter, that joined her for an unforgettable rendition that left the entire audience on their feet for a standing ovation.
The highlight of the night was her final song, which she addressed with, "I want to leave you all with a love letter." She invited members of the cast of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND (including Powell, Uzele, Carter, Emerson Davis, Cassondra James, and Mia Williamson) to join her for one of the musical's most beautiful songs, "Human Heart." Many of the cast members took the stage, but what was the most wonderful was hearing members of the cast singing with Kilgore while still seated at their tables, creating the feeling of relaxing in a wide open field, and hearing a whole community burst out in song around you. Kilgore clearly has a bright path ahead of her, and her voice and story can only grow from here.
Hailey Kilgore will return to Feinstein's/54 Below on April 17 at 9:30 PM. For tickets and information, visit www.54below.com.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD specialist, artist, author, health advocate, award-winning actress, and playwright. Her work can be found at amyoes.com.