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BWW Review: AUDRA MCDONALD, Leicester Square Theatre

Six-time Tony winner and reigning Queen of Broadway - plus "Olivier Award...presenter", jokes partner-in-crime Seth Rudetsky in his introduction (though surely that's just a matter of time, with her Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill coming to Wyndham's this summer) - lauded actress and singer Audra McDonald is the consummate pro. If further proof were needed, she's currently at Leicester Square Theatre offering a veritable masterclass in cabaret.

It's a simple format - "song, spontaneous chitter chatter, song", per Rudetsky - but these exposing, stripped-back shows are deceptively difficult to nail. Too slick, and they lose their intimacy; too meandering, and you lose the audience. This finds the perfect balance of well-oiled machine with the odd impulsive frisson.

Credit must certainly go to Rudetsky, who maintains a brisk pace and smooths over transitions with vamping and arch quips. His long-established relationship with McDonald - back in the day, he added a big, jazz-hands key modulation to her Juilliard recital's "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" - translates into sibling-like banter and wonderfully sensitive accompaniment. The Q&A sections, though practised, have a real spark to them. It's just fun being with two people who so clearly enjoy one another's company.

But none of this would work without the awe-inspiring talent of McDonald. The interviews illuminate her atypical path, from operatic training at Juilliard to the combination of musicals, plays and TV and film work. Such crossover artists are becoming more common, but McDonald is one of those who helped pave the way - her success validating a choice that some in the industry still regard with suspicion.

It's certainly a virtue in this case, with the development of her mighty classical instrument lending heft to a soaring "I Could Have Danced All Night" and richly decorated "Summertime". The acting chops are evident in her wry "Moments in the Woods", wistful "Stars and the Moon" and knockout "Maybe This Time", the latter demonstrating the raw, visceral quality she's able to summon in her lower register.

It's a smartly varied programme, from serious to silly, and from old classics to the new artists she champions; her impassioned delivery of "Sandwich relish!" will certainly make me look up Gabriel Kahane's Craigslist lieders. But though she may begin "The Rose" with a giggling anecdote about a school play, she still (technical term) sings the crap out of it. It's completely disarming.

Husband Will Swenson, currently appearing in Waitress on Broadway, has a similar ability. Giving McDonald a brief respite so she can pop backstage and feed her infant daughter (add self-deprecating but obviously dedicated parent to the list of accomplishments), Swenson gives us a jovial blast of Gilbert and Sullivan and then joins her in a droll but superbly voiced duet.

Those eager for behind-the-scenes goss will also come away happy. There are some great co-star revelations - apparently Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs built a practice replica of their Raisin in the Sun set in his palatial home - and a segment involving Patti LuPone, the Tonys and Liza Minnelli that hits the musical theatre jackpot.

By the time we reach a heavenly rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain", the audience is fully converted to the religion that is Audra McDonald.

Audra McDonald at Leicester Square Theatre until 15 April. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill at Wyndham's Theatre 17 June-9 September

Photo credit: Autumn de Wilde

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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