Audra McDonald returns to the Leicester Square Theatre after her highly successful gig last year. Once again this is a short run of four evenings, but happily we shall see her again in London soon at Wyndham’s Theatre where she will be reprising Lady Day, her Tony Award-winning show devoted to the life of Billy Holliday. She is joined here by her regular accompanist, Seth Rudetsky, who also acts as compere. Her husband, Will Swenson, makes a brief guest appearance. It is a free-wheeling and informal structure: songs alternating with anecdotes and reminiscence. The choice of material, it should be noted, will be different on each evening, but such is the quality that ideally anyone devoted to musical theatre should go every night, if they can.

It is a very simple layout – piano, mike, chairs – but such is the technical assurance and communicative flair of singer and accompanist/interviewer that the listener is taken on a wonderful Broadway journey of the imagination in a varied and demanding programme that passes in a moment.

First up were a couple of trademark McDonald songs that she has recorded: a cool and reflective version of When did I fall in love? and a yearnsome version of I won’t mind, both of which offered plenty of examples of that combination of velvety tone, effortless top notes, and crisp timing for which this singer is so well known. The audience were very engaged from the start, but all inhibitions were removed next when she firmly broke down the fourth wall by getting everyone involved in her version of I could have danced all night.

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One of this performer’s greatest skills, apart from her peerless technical control is her ability to build and demonstrate character through a song. She tells a story not just through inflections in the voice, but through nuances of body language and expression that often display a conflict between the surface of the song and its inner emotional content.

There were some matchless examples of this emotional layering at the heart of the programme: in Stars and the Moon the gradual realisation of the wrong choices made in love and life was exquisitely achieved, and in the two Sondheim items – Glamorous Life and Moments in the Woods, the conflicting tensions in the character’s mind were lucidly depicted, whether the heartaches of showbiz domestic life in the first, or the meaningful boundaries between ‘and/or’ in the second.

AudraPerhaps best of all in this genre was her version of Maybe this time. We are all so used to the Minelli version of this standard, which turns a truly defeated torch song into something triumphalist in its defiance, that it is wonderful to have this number reinvented and taken back to its emotional roots. Alongside the strident defiance comes an increasingly desperate sense of the hopelessness and helplessness of Sally Bowles, which takes us back to the world of Isherwood’s Berlin milieu with compelling authenticity. This was the stand-out performance of the evening.

Similarly, her version of The Rose rethinks the song with imagination and finds new meanings that emerge plausibly from under the looming shadow of Bette Midler. Often it is a matter of taking a particular key phrase that we are over-used to hearing done in one way, and finding a new tempo or colour. This is part of the reason why Mcdonald’s treatment of Climb every mountain continues to thrill: she accelerates and drives through the final line to the end of the song instead of just gliding and subsiding comfortably into the grandiose closing cadence. It is vocally thrilling and also totally in character with the Mother Superior’s injunction to embrace life’s challenges.

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There was some very interesting newer material too. A couple of tongue-in-cheek art songs from Craig’s List Lieder by Gabriel Kahane take banal adverts and provide a showcase for the singer’s classical training. And in Adam Gwon’s I’ll be here, a recent winner of the Fred Ebb award, we have one of the most concise memorials to 9/11, and indeed to all victims of sudden loss where the search for meaning and recovery seems almost impossible.

Swenson’s interventions were of mixed quality: his rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s I am a Pirate King was unidiomatic and frankly coarse; but his duet with his wife in You don’t bring me flowers, was well turned by both of them. The show ended with another standard that Audra has remade – Summertime from Porgy and Bess. Too often singers simply project languor without longing. This time we got the full rounded treatment that recaptured in miniature the place that this number occupies in the opera, where it stands as a statement of hope that you know will be ground down by experience.

AudraRudetsky proved a very sympathetic yet individual accompanist, quite capable of showy interjections and striking modulations when needed, but reticent and supportive too. These two go all the way back to student days at Juilliard, and their long-term understanding and artistic empathy is obvious. He has a nice line in ironic, gossipy patter too, and was very good at drawing out the singer’s memories and insights without flattery or sentimental gloop.

Mcdonald herself is, as you would expect, as classy in conversation as she is as a performer. Broadway chit-chat can be snarky or softball or sentimental, but rarely informative. However, she has the gift of getting her views across with charm, humour, and dignity and taking laughs at her own expense, rather than other people. She was perhaps most insightful about the influence of her classical training on her later development. While her heart was never in opera (she improvised riffs in her Mozart audition piece), she was frank on how useful that grounding has been to her development in providing a secure technical platform from which she could improvise and experiment. In the same way that Elton John’s career is unimaginable without his classical training at the Royal Academy of Music, so Mcdonald and Juilliard go together.

There are many explanations for the continuing success of this great singer beyond her outstanding talent and artistic refinement. The fact that she has won Tony awards in all available genres is testament to her restless determination to develop her range and not repeat herself artistically. This is the most compelling reason to make every effort to attend these concerts, all of which will be different, and to book now for her next appearances in London later this summer.

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Audra McDonald In Concert And Conversation
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…