Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Audra McDonald is a consummate performer. With an incredibly clear soprano voice, an intense emotional connection to every song she sings, and a down to earth personal perspective, it is no wonder she has won a half dozen Tonys for her various Broadway appearances. Her performance in Scottsdale amounted to a stellar affair.
The concert provided a perfect combination of songs from contemporary composers including Jason Robert Brown to well-known writers such as Stephen Sondheim and John Kander and Fred Ebb. "When Did I Fall in Love?" from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's musical Fiorello! provided a perfect beginning for the concert with its various emotional moments including several that allowed Audra's voice to soar to the rafters. Audra commented that her oldest daughter never let her sing any lullabies to her when she was a child, often saying that her mother's singing "made my ears cry," but her new baby just laughs when she sings. She then sang a lovely pairing of two lullabies: "Whose Little Angry Man" from Raisin and "Baby Mine" from Dumbo.
"Stars and the Moon," a cabaret standard from the Jason Robert Brown revue Songs for a New World, allows a performer to not only sing a good song but tell a story that has moments of humor, deep thought and meaning. Audra delivered the emotional and comical moments perfectly, ensuring that the amusing lyrics had bite. She also sang a song that she said she never wanted to sing because it's too popular, and she also stated that she is too old to play the part anymore, but her delivery of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady was simply astounding. However, while having the audience sing along during the chorus parts added a nice touch, it would have been just as lovely to hear Audra sing the entire song alone. She followed this with Stephen Sondheim's "The Glamorous Life" from the film version of A Little Night Music and managed to hit every emotional and comic note the song requires, making it a major highlight of the concert.
Seth Rudetsky is known not only for his skilled piano accompaniment, which he exhibited in fine form for this concert, but also for his well-honed and personable interview techniques that he displays on the shows he hosts on the "On Broadway" Sirius XM channel and elsewhere. In these spontaneous, un-scripted segments McDonald talked about how performing after having a baby impacts a woman both emotionally and physically, and how, during her years attending Julliard as a classical singer, she thought she was in the wrong place as she really just wanted to sing on Broadway. While those were emotional stories, she also had some funny ones, including one about how chatty Liza Minnelli can be and another about the humorous things that happen during a Broadway show. That segment included Audra talking about the time a rat got into the theatre during a performance of A Raisin in the Sun and about inappropriate comments that audience members shouted out during that show. She also spoke about how she is drawn to parts that scare her, such as her Tony winning performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.
Audra mentioned how she likes to sing songs from new musical theatre composers in order to ensure there is a future in the art form. She delivered a spotless take on the very funny "Baltimore" written by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler. She then sang "I'll Be Here" by young award-winning songwriter Adam Gwon from his show Ordinary Days, a contemporary story song about the effects of September 11th on one person. It is a lovely and simple story song with a huge emotional impact.
McDonald's husband Will Swenson took the stage to give McDonald a moment to attend to their newborn and Rudetsky talked to him for a few moments about his career. Swenson sang a spirited version of "I Am the Pirate King" from The Pirates of Penzance and was joined by McDonald for a fun take on the 1970s love duet "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," where he channeled Neil Diamond in his vocal delivery.
Other highlights included a stunning performance of "Maybe This Time" from Cabaret as well as an impromptu version of "The Rose," which is a song that Audra got her middle school teacher to let her sing when she played the Witch in Hansel and Gretel. She ended the concert with an incredibly moving performance of "Climb Every Mountain," a song that she got to sing for millions of TV viewers in the live NBC broadcast of "The Sound of Music Live!." She came back for an encore of one song that she said is her mantra because it is really about holding on to what's most important in life: the Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green song "Make Someone Happy" from Do Re Mi. She delivered a touching version of the song.
McDonald's personal comments about her life and the connections she has to the songs she chose to sing are what elevates her performing skills from someone who just comes out and sings a series of songs. The addition of Rudetsky's probing yet personable questions helped the audience to understand why she chose to sing each song and also to feel like they learned more about Audra McDonald the individual. The combination of emotionally rich singing and perceptive personal stories resulted in a thrilling evening and I look forward to the rest of the concerts in this series.
Dates for shows in next year's season of "Broadway @ Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts," are January 27, February 24, March 17 and April 7, 2018, with guests to be announced and tickets on sale beginning March 31st.
Audra McDonald with Seth Rudetsky performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, January 28th, 2017. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found at www.scottsdaleperformingarts.org.