Tuesday night in our nation’s capital and just a day after I started a new chapter of my life, once I heard that Audra McDonald was coming to perform at the Kennedy Center, I knew I had to see her once again. For two incredible nights, she will display her amazing voice with the National Symphony Orchestra for an incredible night of music, stories, and Broadway magic!
The first time that I heard McDonald’s sweet soprano voice was back in March of 2012 when she performed the classic “Summertime” during her appearance on “The Colbert Report”. The next time I knew, I booked the tickets and headed up to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to see “Porgy & Bess” to see & hear this amazing voice. I even had the chance to meet her afterwards at the stage door and she is as friendly as you can imagine. Almost 12 years later, I finally got the chance to hear her voice again… this time in my hometown at the premiere venue in the city. With the National Symphony Orchestra providing the music, you can expect greatness.
The conductor, Andy Einhorn, walks out on the famous Concert Hall stage and starts the evening with an amazing melodic tune that is easy on the ears. When it comes to the NSO, they simply take out the Concert Hall and into a journey. You can just close your eyes and see the new worlds that you hear through the music they play. It is purely magical from the first note to its last. The warm-up was as expected – majestical.
Soon after, the guest of honor, Audra McDonald, dressed in a long forest green dress is greeted by the packed crowd. She first greeted the 2,000+ audience in front of her and then waved to the audience members who were sitting on the sides. She started off the evening with “I Am What I Am”, the finale number of the first act from the musical “La Cage Aux Folles” and she killed it! After the first piece, McDonald stated “I’m so happy to be with you all in the glorious concert hall with the glorious musicians.” We could not agree more. She informed us that tonight’s program will feature songs from The Great American Songbook and the first song that she sung; she loves the message it gives.
Next, she takes us back to our childhood with a song that she hopes that we remember from our childhood. To hear her sing “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is divine. She mentioned that as a young girl, the movie scared her that she has not shown it to her daughter yet. Speaking of her childhood, she went back in time to talk about her life, living in Fresno CA and starting to perform at the tender age of nine. At the time, she began her journey as part of a show choir called “All That Jazz” and went on to describe the outfits they wore as performers. With her descriptions, the clothes they wore were spot on early eighties fashion. They went on to compete in a competition in Reno, NV in 1985 which they won their division. During that same competition, she went solo and won for the song she sang. Audra noted that one judge wondered in their notes “You’re 14, how could know this song?” The song was from the musical “Funny Girl,” and it was “Cornet Man”. Young Audra figured that she drank a lot of coffee, but today’s Audra told us that now she understands the true meaning as the audience chuckles at the anecdote. She also noted while the song didn’t make it into the 1968 film with Barbra Streisand, you can hear on the musical productions, even currently on Broadway.
She parleyed into the next song but paying tribute to “Duke”, DC’s own Duke Ellington whom she calls “American royalty”. She performed with the NSO, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and you got to appreciate the moving bassline that will get anyone dancing in their seats. When it comes to Audra’s vocals, they are timeless. She can sing any song from any period and own it. During the piece, the NSO and audience got to do the scats during the chorus when called upon. McDonald says afterwards “The NSO swings… and so does the DC audience” and we applaud because it is true.
She continued through the first act by helping us earn our “soprano cards” which at first, I could not figure out what song that we must sing after she sang but once you hear the melody, I knew it in an instant. The next time “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady”, I better not blow out my voice because those notes are high as the sky. The audience tried their best too and God bless them. We also got to hear the song that made me gravitate to her amazing talent again – “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess”. To hear that once more, brought back a lot of memories of the first time and brought tears to my eyes. Audra talked about developing a hobby during the pandemic and becoming an amateur gardener. Although she did not develop a green thumb, she wanted to include a song that is tied to gardening. She found one by way of Murray Grand who composed “I Always Say Hello to a Flower”. It is a very peculiar song for its time. The composition for tonight comprised of some ukelele courtesy of Andy. It was a nice addition to tonight’s program.
The final song of the first act brought back memories for it was the first production that she saw herself in a show and said that’s what I want to do with my life. The song reminded her of her home of Fresno. She sang “Home” from “The Wiz” but tonight’s performance had a special meaning. It was dedicated to one of the original actors, Hinton Battle. He was the first to play the Scarecrow in the stage musical. We lost Hinton the day before. He was 67 years young. Audra’s rendition was beautiful, and she got a standing ovation for it!
For the final song of the evening, Audra told us about another song that she didn’t want to sing and was afraid to sing it. One day, she got call from a woman who wanted her to sing for a party in the Big Apple the day that Broadway reopened for the first time since the pandemic. The woman said that “this song celebrates all of that”. The party was held at the Metropolitan Museum and the woman was…. we will leave that as a mystery to our readers. And the song “Life is a Cabaret” was the perfect way to end the night. I love the unique take on the classic Broadway tune, it starts off slow and then picks up the pace. With the song, I can understand the pressure and appreciation to not only sing it well but sing it right. Audra’s and the NSO take on it was hers and hers alone but superior! Just when you thought the concert was done, we got an amazing encore by way of a duet with Audra and Andy!
An amazing performance from Audra! All we ask is, please come back to DC and grace us again with your voice!
FINAL GRADE: A++