By Brian Scott Lipton
To the countless young girls (and gay boys) who spend hours at home imagining they’re Audra McDonald, take note. The six-time Tony Award winner constantly listened to the great leading ladies of Broadway while growing up in Fresno, California, as she revealed in her brilliant concert at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, April 29 (as part of her current national tour).
During her remarkable two-hour set, she paid tribute to some of these women, in both expected and unexpected ways. She started off with a blazing, jazz-inflected version of Kander & Ebb’s “Sing Happy” (originally performed by 19-year-old Liza Minnelli in “Flora the Red Menace,”) and which introduced us to the genius of her musical director Andy Einhorn, and fellow players Mark Vanderpoel and Gene Levin. Later on, she honored Chita Rivera with another signature Kander & Ebb tune, the snappy “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” (from “The Rink”) and then overcame what she claimed was a lifelong fear by performing a stunning rendition of Bock & Harnick’s “Ice Cream,” Barbara Cook’s signature tune from “She Loves Me.”
There were plenty of great selections from the Great White Way in the concert, each sung with McDonald’s amazing insight into the lyrics as well as her flawless vocal technique, including her peerless version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow” (in which she sounded even better than she did two decades ago in “Carousel”); the gorgeous “How Could I Ever Know?” (from “The Secret Garden”); a steadfast and strong “The Writing on the Wall” (from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”), a truly inspirational “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (from “The Sound of Music”), and even a daring “Rainbow High”— which she sang as a 16-year-old when she played the title role in a local California production of “Evita.”
She also brought down the house with a roof-blowing “Maybe This Time” (another Kander & Ebb classic, from the film version of “Cabaret”), and dazzled the crowd with a rewritten version of “Proud Lady” (from “The Baker’s Wife”), with new lyrics written for her by Stephen Schwartz (who was in the audience), so she could sing it from the point of view of the show’s lead female character, Genevieve.
As always, McDonald treated the audience to some less familiar selections, such as Cole Porter’s tongue-twisting “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” (in two versions, including one tailored to her life with special lyrics about her love for Chipotle and husband Will Swenson); Dave Malloy’s beautiful ballad “No One Else”; Shaina Taub’s charming children’s song “The Tale of Bear and Otter”; and Kate Miller Heidke’s hilarious “The Facebook Song,” during which McDonald dropped numerous “F-bombs” in this hallowed hall.
Above all, though, three selections stood out, not just for their extraordinary interpretations, but because of McDonald’s straight-from-the-heart pre-song patter. She spoke of her support of Covenant House, which supports homeless youth before launching into a heartbreaking rendition of Kander & Ebb’s “Go Back Home” (from “The Scottsboro Boys”); she explained her unwavering stance for the need for marriage equality while leading up to a magnificent “Make Someone Happy” (from “Do Re Mi”); and she finished up the evening by relating her love for Judy Garland and the significance of the Stonewall Riots before serving up an unforgettable “Over the Rainbow” (from “The Wizard of Oz.”)
We all flew out of Carnegie Hall like happy little bluebirds! www.carnegiehall.org
Photo: Getty Images – Stephanie Berger