Audra McDonald performed in concert at the Leicester Square Theatre, London.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald returns to London’s Leicester Square Theatre for a glorious but short, four show residency after two similar cabaret concerts here last summer.
Wearing the same outfit she wore last summer (which she makes a specific point of mentioning) she bursts on to the small stage with huge energy and excitement, singing ‘When Did I Fall In Love?’ (Fiorello!) to an adoring audience.
Accompanied by her exuberant life-long friend and musical collaborator Seth Rudetsky, they whisk us away on a musical and personal mémoire.
McDonald and Rudetsky are self-evidently life-long friends as well as musical collaborators and work effortlessly and humorously together, with the latter asking questions that take us on the actress and singer’s musical journey: singing from age nine in Fresno California, Hansel and Gretel at Theodore Roosevelt High School, dinner theatre, and an unexpected move to New York to study classical singing and opera at Juilliard.
While loving opera as an art-form to listen to, McDonald’s heart and soul still always yearned for Broadway, though she credits Juilliard with nurturing a part of her voice she might not otherwise have discovered, singing light soprano roles.
Though the artist possesses glorious rich, warm, low and middle range notes, she does indeed hit several sparkling, extremely high notes during her Broadway reminisces in this concert, so her time at Juilliard was definitely not wasted!
McDonald parted company from singing opera in her final Juilliard recital and once more embraced Broadway. By the age of just 28 she had already won three Tony Awards (for Carousel, Master Class and Ragtime).
She was nominated again (for Marie Christine) before winning her fourth Tony for ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ in 2004, and then two more for Bess in Porgy and Bess in 2012, and two year later for the role she is about to bring to the West End in June: Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. She is now a deserved record-breaking winner of six Tony Awards.
A mistress of her art and completely assured in her vocal and dramatic abilities, she excels and completely holds an audience when telling a story in song.
Whether the beautiful, ethereal but earthy ‘I Won’t Mind’ (music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, lyrics by Annie Kessler and Libby Saines) or Sondheim’s lonely daughter singing of her actress mother away living ‘The Glamorous Life’.
Add to that repertoire: Jason Robert Brown’s trophy wife who has everything but nothing in ‘Stars and the Moon’; Adam Gwon’s heart-breaking ‘I’ll Be Here’ from Ordinary Days – McDonald paints rich, evocative and deeply moving pictures in deep shades and delicate pastel colours with her beautiful voice.
This is unquestionably an exceptional evening at Leicester Square Theatre and a masterclass in the art of cabaret. Classy, sophisticated and supremely accomplished singing.
However, McDonald is never prissy or pretentious, but full of fun, insisting her audience singalong with gusto, while hitting top ‘C’s above the entire chorus assembled before her in ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’.
She understands her voice completely, even five months after giving birth (!) and it is joyous to see and hear.
And although her career and accomplishments have already spanned 25 years, it is evident she has many more decades ahead of her yet.
It is also clear that family and friends are deeply important to her and she makes a point of talking about her 16-year-old daughter Zoe, who is helping take care of new arrival, five-month old Sally backstage.
It is Sally’s unexpected arrival that caused the postponement of Lady Day from last summer to this. How wonderful and typical that McDonald should simply have shifted dates around to embrace family and yet still bring her sixth Tony Award performance to London.
This is real life. Plans change because family and people come first. Her husband, Broadway singer/actor Will Swenson, also makes a brief Pirate King appearance singing some solo Gilbert and Sullivan before they both sing a touching ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’.
Luminous in her solos, we are privileged to see a small glimpse of McDonald’s 25-year career condensed into a few carefully chosen songs.
After singing her ‘Benediction’ – a glorious ‘Climb Every Mountain’ – Rudetsky makes reference to finding her chosen encore amongst her catalogue of 8,000 songs: a ravishing ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess.
Cabaret is rarely this classy, sophisticated or perfect. New Yorkers have many opportunities to hear this beautiful, unique singer. Do not miss this special performance here in London. There is real treasure, excellence, joy and artistry at Leicester Square this week from songstress supreme Audra McDonald.
Tickets for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill are available HERE.