Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Concert review: Audra McDonald

The four-time Tony winner shines. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from the Kimmel Center.

Concert review: Audra McDonald

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Audra McDonald performed Wednesday evening as part of the Kimmel Center's tenth anniversary. Photo by Michael Wilson.

By Howard Shapiro

Ten years ago,  golden-voiced Broadway favorite Audra McDonald helped open the Kimmel Center; on Wednesday night she returned to help celebrate its first decade. Elegant in an asymmetrical gown, she delivered a concert largely drawn from the songbook of American musicals.

Her appearance was the last stop on a 20-city tour. It was to have been the first, but her Oct. 1 appearance was postponed when union workers struck the Kimmel for 18 hours in a labor dispute.
“It wasn’t me — I was ready to come!” McDonald assured the aucdience, but no matter -- it was well worth the wait. The four-time Tony winner, an effusive, rich-toned soprano with a range that could cover Montana, delivered songs from more than a dozen shows with interpretations that honored the different characters in each.

What’s more, she’s great to spend time with. When McDonald isn’t singing, she’s charming and genuine, and readily connects with an audience. The Verizon Hall crowd clearly needed no convincing; McDonald has amassed herself an ocean of goodwill, not only from her stage work but from films and a TV career that kept her off the stage for four seasons of ABC’s Private Practice, in which she played Dr. Naomi Bennett.

She’s returned to the boards full-force: first with the concert tour, and next as the female lead in the Broadway rebirth of Porgy and Bess, which begins previews in two weeks.

It wasn’t just McDonald’s vocal form and physical expressiveness that electrified the evening, it was her selections. For a concert themed on musicals, the show was surprisingly eclectic. The oldest number was from 1922 (“My Buddy,” first sung by Al Jolson and most recently, in a story she told, by a World War II veteran street performer she came across). The newest was from last year: “I’ll Be Here,” a 9/11 lost-love lyric by Adam Gwon, from his intimate musical Ordinary Days, which opened here this week and which McDonald urged the audience to see. (It’s being done at the Adrienne  by 11th Hour Theatre Company.)

She performed the wistful “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys, the final show by Kander and Ebb, which had a run on Broadway last season and will be  staged next month by Philadelphia Theatre Company.
Backed by an excellent three-man combo of bass, percussion and piano (Andy Einhorn was the on-point pianist), McDonald performed Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Comden and Green and her tribute to Lena Horne, “Ain’t It De Truth” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. She nailed Gabriel Kahane’s clever art-song cycle “Craigslistlieder,” whose lyrics come from the free advertising site, and at the end, the moving “Some Days” by Steve Marzullo, who uses as lyrics James Baldwin’s poem from the collection Jimmy’s Blues.

The mix may have been a surprise; McDonald’s gifted, shimmering realization of it was not.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.


No further performances.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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