Monday, April 23, 2012

concert review, AUDRA MCDONALD, NJPAC, April 20

Audra McDonald is a consummate performer.  With an incredibly clear soprano voice, an intense emotional connection to every song she sings as well as a down to earth personal perspective it is no wonder she has won four Tony Awards for her various Broadway performances.  This last Friday night she took a night off from performing in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess and with only one slight misstep her concert with the New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra was a stellar affair.

The concert provided a perfect combination of songs from contemporary composers from Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb and Jason Robert Brown to songs from the Gershwins and Irving Berlin.  "When Did I Fall in Love?" from Bock/Harnick's musical Fiorello provided a perfect beginning to the concert with it's various emotional moments including several that truly allowed Audra's voice to soar to the rafters.  The cabaret standard from Jason Robert Brown, "Stars and Moon" is a song that allows a performer to not only sing a good song but tell a story that has moments of humour, deep thought and meaning as well.  Audra delivered the emotional and humorous moments perfectly actually getting the comical bits better than I've seen other performers get.  However, she might have scaled back just a bit on the slightly operatic vocal flourishes to the song that seemed to ultimately overshadow the simple meaning of the material.   This was the only song in the evening where Audra's delivery could have been turned down just a bit.

Audra mentioned that the next two songs "My Buddy" and "I Double Dare You" were the oldest songs in the concert, but the lyrics and music for both are so contemporary and Audra's delivery of both is so perfect that it is hard to believe these were both written so long ago.  Her personal comments about these two songs as well as the stories she told about her connection to every other song in the concert is what elevates her performing skills from someone who just comes out and sings a series of songs.  By personalizing each song it helps us not only to understand why she chose to sing each song but also feel like we know more about Audra McDonald the individual.

Audra talked about her daughter and how one day when they were listening to the Broadway channel on Sirius XM satellite radio that her daughter said that she should sing the song that was playing.  Audra mentioned how that song, "He Plays the Violin" from 1776, was from a show she wasn't originally that familiar with.  She talked about how the plot of that show centered around the fight for the Declaration of Independence and how her daughter and her two soon to be step-sons staged an "occupation living room" one night and came up with their own declaration requesting things like the right to stay up late.  She then gave us a crystal clear performance of the song with her voice filling the large space of the NJPAC auditorium.

Irving Berlin's "Moonshine Lullaby" from Annie Get Your Gun is a song that provides a lovely lyric with a lush musical accompaniment.  Audra's delivery was touching and heartfelt.  She followed this with Stephen Sondheim's "Moments in the Wood" from Into the Woods and managed to hit every emotional and comic note the song requires and truly made this into a major highlight of the concert.   Audra briefly spoke about her connection to the various Marriage Equality rallies and sang the song she often sings at these gatherings, the Gershwin's "He Loves and She Loves" from Funny Face.   This is a lovely song with a simple message that "love is love" and Audra's delivery of it was spot on.

"First You Dream" from Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier is a song from a flop show that has a lovely message that anything can happen as long as you dream.  The orchestration for this was simply stunning and provided a perfect accompaniment to Audra's stellar vocal.  Audra mentioned that her father died in a plane crash almost five years ago and that this song with it's connection to flying was very personal to her since her father loved to fly.  She also mentioned that her father often commented on why she didn't play the piano in her concerts so she sat down at the piano and delivered "Migratory V" from Adam Guettel's Mythms and Hymns.  Her performance of this song was especially meaningful after her comments about her father.

Next Audra sang a song that she said she never wanted to sing as everyone had sung it, but she realized that "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady was one that she needed to get over herself and sing.  Her delivery of this song was simply astounding, though 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.

Audra commented on how her 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" so Audra said that we would have to be the ones subjected to her singing of lullabies.  She sang a lovely pairing of "Whose Little Angry Man" from Raisin and "Baby Mine" from Dumbo.   Audra spoke about her Julliard training in Classical voice and then sang an extremely humorous song called "Craigslist Lieder" that uses actual text from Craigslist ads set to a modern classical composition.

Audra talked about the Kander and Ebb musical Scottsboro Boys and the significance of the actual events of that show where twelve young African American men were falsely accused of rape. She then sang the touching song "Go Back Home" from that show, hitting all of the right emotional notes and with a lovely orchestration accompanying her.

Audra mentioned how the young songwriter Adam Gwon won the Fred Ebb award two years ago which is an award that provides a cash prize to allow songwriters to keep writing instead of having to worry about where there rent money is coming from.  I've heard other songs that Gwon has written and am happy to hear that he won this award.  She then sang Gwon's "I'll Be Here" from his show Ordinary Days, is a contemporary story song about the effects of September 11th on one person.  It is a lovely simple story song with a huge emotional impact. 

Audra talked about how that day touched everyone, but most of all those of us in the New York City area.  She said the events of that day have always made her think about what's most important in life and how easy it is to take things for granted.  She said that one song that she loves that it is really about holding on to what's most important is the Jule Styne, Comden and Green song "Make Someone Happy" from Do, Re, Mi.  She then sang an incredibly touching and moving version of the song with a lovely orchestration.

Audra talked about Lena Horne and how she was asked to sing at Horne's funeral.  She then sang the rousing "Ain't It De Truth" by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg from the musical Jamaica that was sung by Horne to close out the show.  This provided a high energy end to the concert.  

The one misstep that Audra made was to not do an encore despite the roaring ovation from the audience.   I understand that she did have two performances of Porgy the next day and even mentioned she had to be up early for softball pictures for her daughter around 8am - but by not providing an encore it seemed like she was in some way dissing the audience.  If she was trying to keep her concert to 90 minutes she could easily have cut one of the earlier songs and simply sang it as an encore instead and had the show be the same length it was, but giving the audience what they came for.  By not giving an encore it seemed like she was in some way short changing the audience.


  1. I agree with much of what you report. From my seat (row FF center) the sound of the PA was somewhat echoy. I didn't notice this as much from the accompaniment. Also, you didn't list "He Plays the Violin" (the 5th selection) from "1776." However, I do agree with your comment about the lack of an encore.

  2. I can't believe I forgot to include "He Plays the Violin" - I'll update my review shortly to include that selection. Thanks for reminding me about that.