Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Hostage
These concerts are different than your typical cabaret show in that they include a performer singing an evening of songs as well as talking about their theatrical and personal experiences in informative interview segments. McDonald and Rudetsky, a host on the Sirius XM "On Broadway" channel, have been friends for over 20 years and their familiarity and comfort with each other was apparent in the questions that Rudetsky asked which resulted in insightful stories about McDonald's past.
At the start of the concert, McDonald said that she felt she was coming down with a cold, a side effect of having a 2-year-old daughter she said is basically a "petri dish" of disease. But her vocal abilities throughout the evening never once faltered and were consistently exceptional, infused with rich tones, warm notes, and crystal-clear annunciation.
The concert provided a perfect combination of songs from well-known composers such as Stephen Sondheim to contemporary songwriters including Jason Robert Brown along with songs from a few shows McDonald appeared in and others that are staples of her concerts. A rousing version of "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles got the evening off in a spirited fashion. She spoke a lot about her children, which include her daughters Zoe and Sally and the two stepsons from her marriage to Will Swenson. Hearing the way she talks about her kids made a pairing of "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific and "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods, which focus on how children learn both good and bad traits from their parents, have a personal impact.
She also spoke at length about her friendship with Barbara Cook, who passed away in 2017. Cook was a mentor to McDonald as well as someone she performed in concert with, and speaking about her brought McDonald to the verge of tears. Her performance of "Vanilla Ice Cream," a song Cook introduced in the musical She Loves Me, was a beautiful tribute to this Broadway legend. McDonald also talked about her formal training in the opera program at Juilliard, where she said she wasn't allowed to participate in a masterclass that Cook gave for the musical theatre department but did get the chance to usher at the class and was glad she did, as she learned so much from her. Looking back now, she also said that she can't believe how close she was to Cook and how she still can't believe she is no longer in her life.
While she said that her time at Juilliard did teach her much, McDonald commented that she knew she didn't want to be an opera singer and longed to perform on Broadway. She talked about how magical her Broadway debut was, when she took over in a small part in the original production of The Secret Garden and also told some comical tales about her Broadway experiences. These included how the cast in Ragtime liked to play jokes on her when she was supposed to be playing dead, and also a very funny moment when an audience member toward the end of A Raisin in the Sun decided to talk back to the cast.
Rudetsky's piano skills are exemplary and his perceptive interviewing skills bring out in-depth and insightful stories from the people he interviews. These moments included McDonald talking about the difficulties in singing Stephen Sondheim songs, including the night she forgot the lyrics to one of his songs at an event where he was being honored. Her delivery of two Sondheim songs, "Being Alive" from Company and "The Glamorous Life" from the film version of A Little Night Music, were exceptional. She also sang a soaring version of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady and a comically rich version of "Cornet Man" from Funny Girl that she mentioned she sang at a talent show when she was only 13, even though she clearly didn't know what the song was about at such a young age.
She also mentioned that she is drawn to parts that scare her, and when asked by an audience member during a question and answer segment what she wants to tackle next, since she has already achieved so much, McDonald commented that lately she's been thinking about doing something in politics. She said it wouldn't be anything on the national level but maybe serving on her local school board.
Two story songs by fairly recent composers that focus on the emotional journeys of two very different women proved to be moving highlights in the concert. Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon" is a cabaret standard that gives a performer the chance to tell a great story while also singing a beautiful song. Adam Gwon's "I'll Be Here" from his show Ordinary Days is another story song with a range of emotions, focusing on the effects of September 11th on one person. McDonald infused both songs with moments of comedy, deep thought, and insightful meaning.
The beauty of McDonald's vocal delivery is that it is rich with passion while also managing to hit every emotional and comic note that each song requires. The evening ended with two well-known musical theatre standards which received beautiful renditions, "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music, which McDonald sang in the live TV version of the show, and an encore of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, which ended the night on a high.
Audra McDonald performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, January 19, 2019. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found at www.scottsdaleperformingarts.org.