Audra McDonald. Symphony Hall, Boston. April 13, 2018

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday April 17, 2018

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald  

It is quite hard to believe that it has been some 20 years since Audra McDonald had her break-out role as Carrie in Nicholas Hytner's rethinking of "Carousel" at Lincoln Center, for which she won her first Tony Award. Since then she has won five more, the only performer to win awards in each of the acting categories, both musical and dramatic. She also has carved a spectacular career as a concert artist, having, in recent years, made frequent visits to Boston concert halls as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, most recently this past Friday night at Symphony Hall.

The concert tipped off something of a special weekend for McDonald, who followed it on Saturday night by being honored with this year's 2018 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This capped off her recent artist's residency at the school, which she cited in glowing terms throughout her 100-minute concert, even including a terrific pastiche of "Flying Home," 1940s swing song (by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton) made famous in a scat version by Ella Fitzgerald. In McDonald's version, clever, period lyrics were added by MIT professor Laura Grill Jaye, which she is planning on singing with the New York Philharmonic on May 1 in a program to be televised nationally.

As she has done in previous evenings, McDonald focused on the American musical theater songbook. Those who have seen her before likely were familiar with her set, which ran the gamut from the well-known ("I Could Have Danced All Night") to the obscure (the hilarious "The Facebook Song"), and were thrilled to hear them again. And those uninitiated (like some acquaintances I met there) were awestruck by her vocal prowess and impeccable choice of material.

She was (and is) in great voice, possessing a luminous soprano and the acting chops that make her a consummate story-teller in song. She turns songs into mini-one act plays that beautifully capture each one's dramatic thrust. No matter how many times I have heard her sing "The Glamorous Life," a little-known Stephen Sondheim's song written for the film version of "A Little Night Music," I am blown away by the intensity she brings to both Sondheim's insistent melody and his subtlety ironic lyric in which McDonald all but becomes a lonely teenage girl longing to spend time with her absent actress mother.

She prefaced her letter-perfect rendition with a story of how she blew the song's lyric at a gala for the composer last year that she told with self-effacing humor. Which left the audience pretty much in stitches. Indeed the rapport between McDonald and the rapt, sold-out audience was apparent from the moment she warmly addressed their applause at the onset. Boston has been a second home for her, having appeared here in concert on a nearly annual basis over the past few years and her having premiered one of her Tony-winning roles, that of Bess in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater a few seasons ago, which she referenced with a dreamy version of "Summertime" sung without amplification.

McDonald doesn't use these concert appearances to index her career highlights, instead, she highlights the superstars of American musical theater (Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein) with emerging and lesser-known talents. Amongst the latter are Adam Gwon, whose touching "I'll Be Here" offers an essay of love and loss set against the tragedy of 9/11; and the team of Jeff Blumenkrantz (music) and Annie Kessler and Libby Saines (lyrics), whose poignant "I Won't Mind" has become a concert staple for the singer since she rescued the song from obscurity more than a decade ago. She also paid a tribute to her mentor, the late Barbara Cook, with a thrilling version of one of Cook's greatest hits, "Ice Cream." If any musical theater star has picked up the mantle made vacant by Ms. Cook's death last summer, it is Audra McDonald, whose remarkable talent and intimate bond with her audiences is a joy to behold.

For more on Audra McDonald, including the dates of her current North American tour, visit her website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].