Review: Audra McDonald soars in her stirring tour through the American musical
Perfection is not attainable in this earthly realm, but Audra McDonald came as close as humanly possible in her Los Angeles Opera concert Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The six-time Tony winner, one of the marvels of the theatrical world, is on tour promoting her new live solo album, “Sing Happy,” a recording of the concert performance she gave earlier this month at David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic. (The title aptly describes an album that compels ecstatic listening.)
Traveling with a trio of musicians (Brian Hertz on piano, Mark Vanderpoel on bass and Gene Lewin on drums) and conductor Andy Einhorn, McDonald was backed by the L.A. Opera Orchestra, enhancing the grandeur of this journey through the American musical theater songbook.
The performance, friendly and funny in its conversational asides, allowed a virtuoso to do what she does better than any other singer on the planet right now: lay bare the underlying emotions of song with a voice that can travel down any compositional pathway.
A soprano who can swing as freely as she can soar, McDonald is also one of the most stirring stage actors of her generation. She interweaves in musical numbers these divine gifts, dazzling us with her effortless vocal athleticism and assured musicianship while moving us with the exquisite sensitivity of her characterizations.
Talent this manifold is too miraculous to deconstruct, but there is at the heart of McDonald’s art a moral radiance, a desire to align beauty with truth and justice. Her politics are expressed through her compassion. The singer’s commitment to honoring the dignity of characters who confide their struggles in lyrics was evident throughout the concert.
Long a champion for marriage equality, McDonald opened with “I Am What I Am,” from “La Cage aux Folles.” Her handling of this Jerry Herman anthem magnified the belated epiphany of being one’s own “special creation.” The assertion gathered strength as the song marched on, but McDonald never lost sight of how hard the battle had been. Time and history shadowed the celebration.
In singing “Chain of Love” from “The Grass Harp,” the Broadway musical flop derived from a Truman Capote novella, McDonald redeemed not only a song from the Kenward Elmslie and Claibe Richardson score but also the generous heart of a spinster who knows that romance isn’t the only way to experience the raptures of love. Her rendition saluted one of the stars of the short-lived 1971 production, the late Barbara Cook, a singer who, McDonald said, taught her everything she knows about interpreting a song.
Later in the show, McDonald tried out an even more challenging number that Cook originated on Broadway and turned into one of her cabaret staples, “Vanilla Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me.” McDonald joked that this number, along with “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” are how a Broadway singer earns her “soprano card.”
McDonald brilliantly set up how “Vanilla Ice Cream” fits into the complicated romantic plot of “She Loves Me.” And then somehow her performance topped even her superb new recording of the song, capturing the humorous delight of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and rising to meet the high note Jerry Bock’s music dares her to reach on the “vanilla ice cream” climax.
Commenting on the spate of Broadway musical revivals, McDonald spoke ardently about the imperative of supporting contemporary musical theater composers and lyricists, something she’s done throughout her career. But it was through her incandescent interpretation of Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon” from the show “Songs for a New World” that clinched her point.
McDonald confessed that she has a slight allergy to popular songs. She turned parts of “I Could Have Danced All Night” into a sing-along, taking a light approach to the Lerner & Loewe favorite but not letting anyone encroach when it was her moment to shine.
A parent whose children range from teenager to toddler, McDonald made us laugh when she recalled how she was texting with her eldest daughter while backstage during the live-television production of “The Sound of Music.” Not having an audience there to provide immediate feedback, she wondered how the production was being received. Her daughter assured her that all was going well, but after she finished her (astonishing) version of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” she was a little deflated to find a message from home asking where she put the dryer sheets.
Majestically Olympian in her genius yet charmingly downhome in her demeanor, McDonald is like no other Broadway diva. Her passion for musical theater tradition was palpable in the way she administered a pop quiz early only, taking special delight in correcting audience members on some of the trickier questions.
She paid tribute to Leslie Uggams in a gripping version of “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” from “Hallelujah, Baby!” But McDonald made clear that she was singing for all the great African American singers who broke through barriers and made her career possible.
She avoided, for the most part, hot-button issues, but she praised the children of this country who are leading us into a more egalitarian, less violent future. As a concerned mother and citizen, she cultivates hope where she can. “Make Someone Happy,” the song Jule Styne wrote with Betty Comden and Adolph Green for “Do Re Mi,” serves as her credo. She reminded us all of the better angels of our nature.
The audience refused to release her, so she performed as an encore the most sublime version of “Over the Rainbow” I’ve ever heard live. After transporting us to a better world, McDonald, with a hand on her heart, soaked in the gratitude and bid us adieu.
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