Audra McDonald at Boston's Symphony Hall, February 27, 2024 Source: Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston

Review: A Luminous Audra McDonald Returns to Boston's Symphony Hall

Robert Nesti READ TIME: 5 MIN.

Audra McDonald prefaced her Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Symphony Hall on Tuesday by explaining that she had a head cold. She needn't had bothered. No one would have known. Over the course of the following 100 minutes, her sumptuous soprano showed little sign of strain. It remains as full-bodied as it was when she first came to the hall 25 years ago to sing with the Boston Pops, just a bit mellowed with age.

Even at that point in her career, McDonald was a force to be reckoned with: She had already won three Tony Awards – two for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, for "Carousel" and "Ragtime," and one for Best Featured Actress in a Play for "Master Class." Her ability to combine her superb vocal skills with her considerable acting chops made her a unique talent, which has led to three subsequent Tony Award wins: A second Best Featured Actress in a Play for "Raisin in the Sun," a Best Actress in a Play for "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," and a Best Actress in a Musical for "Porgy and Bess." That remarkable synergy translates to her concert performances where every song feels like a one-act play.

Audra McDonald and her 50-piece orchestra seen from the stage of Symphony Hall, Boston
Source: Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston

But while dressed as a diva (in a luxurious, blue-green velvet gown), McDonald is far from being one. Another constant throughout her career is her down-to-earth manner, which is filled with self-effacing humor, and warm, between-the-songs banter, whether it was talking about living with her four children during the pandemic or her own teenage blunders. For instance, when introducing "Cornet Man," the jazzy, little-heard "Funny Girl" number, she explained that she won a vocal contest at 14 by singing the song, despite a judge asking her how, at that age, she could interpret the lyric "And he's the one who makes my coffee percolate." At the time, she recalled, she shrugged her shoulders and thought: "I know. I drink coffee." But now, nearly four decades later, she jokingly sees his point, and she sang the song with all its cheeky, sexual double entendres intact.

McDonald's theme was to celebrate the Great American Musical Theater Songbook, which included numerous standards such as "I Could Have Danced All Night" (sung with a nod to the 96-year-old soprano Leontyne Price) and two walloping Jerry Herman tunes: "I Am What I Am" (which opened the evening) and "Before a Parade Passes By," performed with such gusto that it left you wondering if there's a Dolly Levi in her future. (There are already rumors of a Mama Rose sometime soon.) One of the more ingenious (and touching) song combinations came when she put Oscar Hammerstein's "Carefully Taught" with Stephen Sondheim's "Children Will Listen," a songs that not only tell the same cautionary tale, but allude to how Sondheim paid homage to Hammerstein, his great mentor. Leonard Bernstein was recognized with a poignant pairing of "Some Other Time" and "Somewhere." At one point she said she was singing to the statuary that line the rafters of Symphony Hall by belting "Summertime," and there was a nod to great Duke Ellington with "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," abetted with 'pick-up band' of some 50 local musicians who, under the direction of her musical director Andy Einhorn, really did swing.

by Robert Nesti , EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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