Concert review: Audra McDonald

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

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.

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

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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