It’s a pleasant evening, filled with anecdotes and ad libs galore. I was one of those who had only come to know who Audra McDonald is when her name received star billing for a production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The West End run for that show, originally scheduled for the summer of 2016, was postponed for a year after she became pregnant with second husband Will Swenson. Swenson is also the support act (in more ways than one) for this series of concerts at Leicester Square Theatre in which McDonald engages brilliantly with the audience, as does the musical director and host, Seth Rudetsky.
Those who have followed McDonald avidly will have noted that this is not the first time she has done concerts at LST in which she invites the audience to join in a verse of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s musical My Fair Lady. That wasn’t the only musical theatre standard of the evening; the show opened with ‘When Did I Fall in Love’ from Fiorello!, a show I know nothing about, mostly because the only record of a West End run I was able to find was one at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1962. That production was apparently ‘too American’ for London audiences. The show closed (not counting the encore, ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) with ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, the other joint winner of the 1960 Tony Award for Best New Musical.
There was a narrative of sorts going on with the eclectic (albeit all-American) selection of songs. ‘The Glamorous Life’ from the motion picture version of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, was a bittersweet song about working mothers who never ever have enough hours in the day to get everything done. Elsewhere, If McDonald expressed reservations about singing ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret, because it had been performed so many times before, and by the great and the good, caution was thrown to the wind when it came to singing ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’, as a duet with Swenson, a song made famous by Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. Swenson delighted the London crowd with a Gilbert and Sullivan number from The Pirates of Penzance, done with the sort of confident swagger that the Pirate King character ought to have.
Both Rudetsky and McDonald converse at quite a pace, and it is just as well that they enunciate so clearly – and so freely. Of the many topics under discussion were her studies at the Juilliard, and the many roles McDonald has played across theatre, film and television. Occasionally more than genre was combined, most notably in the 2013 NBC Television broadcast of The Sound of Music Live! You know when you’ve had a bad day and think, ‘one day we’ll look back on all this and laugh’? That ‘one day’ seems to have arrived for Audra McDonald, as she reminisces with much hilarity on past successes and failures, jumbled up lines and bringing certain family members to shows in which she played less than ladylike characters.
McDonald has remarkable control over her voice – in such a relatively intimate space, she uses her microphone perfectly, an impressive achievement, given her opera training, in which she learned how to sing unamplified above the sound of a symphony orchestra. It was easy to follow a song’s narrative whether I had heard the number before or not. McDonald acts as brilliantly and superbly as she sings, and her engagement with the audience was relaxed and assured. She is as skilled and accomplished with tunes from the Great American Songbook as she is with, for instance, ‘I’ll Be Here’, a song from the 2008 musical Ordinary Days. All things considered, a phenomenal performance.
Review by Chris Comaweng
Mark Cortale presents
AUDRA McDONALD with special guests WILL SWENSON and SETH RUDETSKY as pianist & host
April 12th to 15th 2017
Leicester Square Theatre
6 Leicester Place
London, WC2H 7BX