SPAC Shines With The Incandescent Light of Broadway Star Audra McDonald
I am not often called upon to review music of a classical nature or any music performance, for that matter. I was, at best, a bit apprehensive about the prospect when I entered the amphitheater at SPAC Thursday evening. Those apprehensions were washed away as quickly as the sudden downpouring of rain as patrons made their way to their seats just before the curtain.
One of Broadway’s brightest luminaries took the stage with the backing of the Philadelphia Orchestra when six-time Tony, two-time Grammy, and Emmy winner Audra McDonald swept onto the bandshell’s stage. Introduced to the stage by the orchestra’s rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein overture to Carousel, you knew you were in for a wonderful evening of Broadway under the stars (or at least the night sky full of clouds). First premiering on Broadway in 1945, the 1994 Lincoln Center revival earned McDonald her first Tony as a leading actress.
McDonald opened the show with I Am What I Am, from Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles, and announced to the nearly filled house that the evening would be spent on a journey through the great American Broadway songbook. McDonald did not disappoint.
Approximately two hours, one costume change, and twenty songs later, she took her audience through a journey from Gershwin to Sondheim and every composer of note in between.
Between numbers, she regaled her audience with stories, personal and professional, about her children, her background, her education, and her life in general. It was as if you were invited into her home, having an informal chat with an old friend, getting caught up, and exchanging stories about life. Her warmth, sincerity, and radiant smile spilled over the footlights and was absorbed by this more than appreciative audience. She wove her stories into the reasons she chose certain numbers; others, she just jumped right into with no need for an intro.
McDonald’s stunning soprano was so incredibly crystal clear that at one point during the concert, she lowered the mike stand to the floor, stepped away from it, and performed Gerswin’s Summertime from his classic Porgy and Bess without any amplification. Leaving the audience en rapt and on their feet at the song’s conclusion, it was clearly the moment of many highlights of the evening.
The evening included everything from Rose’s Turn from Gypsy to It’s Not Easy Being Green, Children Will Listen, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, Somewhere, and Cabaret.
McDonald offered tribute to the many women of color, including Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, and Leslie Uggams, on whose shoulders she stands to have gotten to that place where she is today. As a tribute, she sang Being Good Isn’t Good Enough from Jule Styne’s Hallelujah Baby! originally performed on Broadway by Uggams.
The Orchestra was conducted by McDonald’s Music Director of ten years, Andy Einhorn. The affable Einhorn brings to the stage an impressive list of Broadway credentials and Grammy nominations. He clearly was having as much fun with the evening as McDonald. Aside from Einhorn, McDonald brought with her a trio of talent, Jeremy Jordan on piano, Gene Lewin on drums, and bassist Mark Vanderpoel who has also performed with her for the past decade.
The evening ended with one encore, an unexpected duet of Get Happy and Happy Days Are Here Again, when Einhorn left his conductor’s podium and joined her for the piece.
Thursday’s audience was quite obviously filled with ardent Broadway and Audra McDonald fans. She never disappointed, and the appreciative audience never wanted her to leave the stage. It was certainly a journey through that songbook that many would have loved to continue for another two hours!