To misquote a famous Sweet Charity number:
The minute she walked in the joint
You could see she was a star of distinction,
A real big belter,
Say, wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in her mind?
6 time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald gave her first concert performance in London in over a decade yesterday at the Leicester Square Theatre. Organisers had apparently not expected her to sell out one concert, let alone two, but demand for tickets was so great that after the first concert was sold out a second matinee performance was added to the schedule. These two performances were the end of a sixty-odd city engagement for McDonald, one that took her around the world.
Honestly, this was a concert that could be watched and re-watched every day for a year without a single regret.
From the first note of her glorious opening number, When Did I Fall In Love? (from the overlooked, under-rated and almost never revived Pulitzer prize winning Fiorello, lyrics and music by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock) to her blissful and reflective version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, McDonald was a complete superstar, effortlessly telling deeply affecting stories through song, connecting intuitively with her audience and singing with a ferocity, a gentle touch, a supremely confident and peerlessly matched tone that simply took one’s breath away. Time after time.
Seeing McDonald perform a role in a musical is a totally different experience to seeing her perform in concert. She utterly inhabits every role she plays and she can be very different in her stage personas, as her performance in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill will make clear to London audiences when the Wyndhams’ season opens in Spring.
But here, McDonald was herself and then a different character each time she sang a song. She lost herself entirely in the lyrics and music, producing an overall effect which is almost unsurpassable. These were not party numbers: these were complete performances of gorgeous musical numbers.
Unlike many concert performers, McDonald is utterly relaxed and confident in her “normal self” mode. She can and does laugh at herself, and tells funny or poignant tales with easy charm; she is completely at home in front of a crowd. Not fazed when she makes a mistake nor reluctant to encourage audience chat and participation, McDonald is like a perfect hostess: she makes the audience feel warm, special and involved. She dressed stylishly, but there were no sparkles or diamonds calling for attention. This was as unlike a concert by a Broadway diva as one might imagine.
Yet it was THE concert by a Broadway diva in London for quite some time and it is likely to be quite some time before its memory is surpassed.
To misquote another song, this one from Fiddler On The Roof:
How can I hope to make you understand
How she does what she does…
The effect of McDonald’s phenomenal performance can be compared to that achieved upon consuming a perfectly made Brandy Alexander: appealing to look at; full bodied; surprisingly warming (in a way that goes right through you); sweet but not overpoweringly so; tangy; smooth; finely textured, like an ocean of velvet; intelligently put together; strong and robust; fresh; creamy; with an overall effect that is startling and rapturous. And moreish – as soon as she was done, you simply wanted her to start all over again.
Every song was delivered immaculately, perfect diction and irrepressible tone combining with a gloriously beautiful sound, all produced and sustained through spot-on and well supported technique. Numbers you think you know well are reinvented and infused with vigour and fresh interest: Climb Every Mountain, Maybe This Time and Stars and the Moon – each of these were exceptionally delivered. This is all the more remarkable when you consider how each of those songs is entirely different in style and requires entirely different attack. But there was no challenge here that McDonald could not meet.
Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here (from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever), A Glamorous Life (from A Little Night Music), Make Someone Happy (from Do Re Mi) and Go Back Home (from The Scottsboro Boys) are all showtunes, but that is pretty much the end of their commonality. McDonald, however, seemed a natural interpreter of all of them and, in her care, each shone with a brilliance, an intensity, that was breathtakingly exhilarating.
Then there were other, intensely felt, standout moments: the heart-breaking I’ll Be Here from Adam Gwon’sOrdinary Days; the touching and splendidly simple Baby Mine from Dumbo; the hilarious and ferociously fast Can’t Stop Talking About Him (from Let’s Dance); and the raw, plaintive Summertime (from Porgy and Bess) delivered almost acoustically, the microphone cast aside. (This was the one song Mcdonald sang from a Broadway production in which she had appeared and in which she sang the number) Each of these moments was immaculate. I doubt they could be bettered.
Her stories were affecting and engaging. Her rapport with her extraordinarily gifted accompanist, Andy Einhorn, who provided world class support on the piano, was real and infectiously satisfying. And, when showcasing her free and incomparable top in an unrestrained I Could Have Danced All Night, the opportunity she provided for the audience to sing along with her was pure, unalloyed joy – for her as well as the audience.
There were no slow patches, no dull songs, no bad notes, no self-indulgence. Just Audra McDonald, a once-in-a-generation performer, providing an eclectic, intelligent set of quite beautiful songs, perfectly performed.