BWW Reviews: Audra McDonald, a Living Legend

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Audra McDonald
Photo credit: Autumn de Wilde

If there ever was a noted voice from heaven, I would have to say that this title belongs to Audra McDonald. Whenever you have the opportunity to witness an artist in a concert setting, you either fall deeper in love with them, or you are pushed away by their energy in this more intimate space. With McDonald, what you see on Broadway is what you get in person. The evening began with McDonald's grand entrance in a beautiful floor-length black gown and her own natural beauty. The first song on the bill was "Sing Happy," from FLORA AND THE RED MENACE. This melodious gem set the tone for the evening. Next up was a beautiful mash-up of "It Might as Well Be Spring," and "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here."

As the evening progressed, there was no denying the dynamic relationship McDonald has with her music director and pianist Andy Einhorn. Their silly hand gestures used to segue from song to song gave us a glimpse into McDonald's sweet and charismatic sense of humor. This playfulness translated with wry subtlety into the number "Baltimore,' a song written by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler. When going to an McDonald concert or theatrical event of this caliber, there is no doubt that the singing will be perfect. However, in this concert she takes us on a musical journey through composers classical to contemporary, from Jule Styne to Stephen Sondheim. In February of 2000 McDonald released her sophomore solo album, How Glory Goes, which featured hits such as "Any Place I Hang my Hat is Home" and "Bill." At Cullen Theatre, she sang one of my favorite songs from this album entitled "I Had Myself a True Love" from THE ST. LOUIS WOMEN, written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.

McDonald has a way of putting her stamp on a song. Theatergoers are familiar with Kander and Edd's great shows, especially CABARET. But McDonlad's version of "Maybe This Time" had the audience on the edge of their seats and in tears. This song was delivered with such despair and longing conveyed that I now have a completely new understanding of this theatrical composition.

After such a visceral moment in "Maybe This Time," trying to change emotional gears going into the next song wasn't easy for McDonald. She almost didn't sing "Can't Stop Thinking about Him" from Frank Loesser's LET'S DANCE. This patter song was very cheeky and obviously different than the previous number, but her impeccable diction and breath control would make Betty Hutton smile down from heaven. On this emotional rollercoaster, I even had a chance to sing with McDonald. Well, in my dreams it would have of course been she and I singing "Wheels of a Dream" from RAGTIME, but it wasn't so. The audience had the chance to sing a chorus from "I Could Have Danced All Night" together.

McDonald is known for speaking bluntly about marriage equality and she is an artist and activist that walks the walk. She performed her rendition of "Go Back Home" from THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and dedicated the performance to her kids at The Covenant House, a center for homeless youth.

At the end of every concert, there has to be a great finale, and McDonald used "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as her benediction for the evening. I had trouble containing myself because this song holds a special place in my heart. McDonald's performance of this song last year on NBC's live version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC was the show-stopping performance that saved the whole production.

From note to note, she put her stamp on this song. She made her exit stage right, and the audience rose to their feet. I kept saying to myself, "She has to come out for an encore." The audience wanted more and she delivered. McDonald performed "Ten Thousand Four Hundred Thirty-Two Sheep" with the Moores School of Music Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Noe Marmolejo. I felt like I had taken the A

Audra McDonald with the Moores Jazz Orchestra
directed by Noe Marmolejo.
Photo credit: Kim Coffman

Train to East 125th Street, and Duke Ellington was on the piano, with Sonny Payne on the drums. The Big Band feeling on this song was nostalgic, and a perfect way to end the evening. I was astonished by the crisp and clean sound of the Jazz Orchestra, but McDonald's vocal prowess was the icing on the cake. This lady could sing the telephone book and it would be a Billboard chart-topping hit. With the crowd still on their feet, she had one more musical trick up her sleeve, Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's "Over the Rainbow" from THE WIZARD OF OZ. This song is a staple in the LGBTQ community and she reminded us that "love is love is love!'

At the age of 17, I was introduced to a voice that forever changed my musical theatre life. My cousin Ephraim Channel was in the original cast of RAGTIME and he sent me the concept album. Night after night, I listened to McDonald's angelic yet powerful voice on repeat. When I heard she was coming to Houston again, I prayed for an opportunity to witness this musical theatre chanteuse in action. The University of Houston's Moores School of Music Madison Artist Series, named for arts patron, alumna and UH System regent Beth Madison, answered. The Madison Artists Series, which kicked off with McDonald's performance, will bring great artists to the Wortham Center's Cullen Theatre to bridge the gap between professional performing artists and the students who one day aspire to follow in their footsteps.

If you have ever seen Audra McDonald on stage, you know why we theatre folk call her Queen Audra. I adore her talent, but I also have so much respect for her as a person, artist and activist. I was educated, entertained and most of all in awe of the theatrical gem we call Audra McDonald. There is no denying the majesty and commitment to excellence she brings to the American stage. As I've said before, going to an McDonald theatrical production or concert will change your life. This concert was more than an ordinary performance; she used every song to tell a story, and with every song McDonald was committed vocally, physically and most of all emotionally. So, I take my place in the court and bow to our Queen. All hail, Queen Audra!

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