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Audra McDonald: Building Bridges

The Tony Award-winning star's intoxicating talent is on full display in this concert, to be broadcast live on PBS.

By New York City
Audra McDonald
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Audra McDonald
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
The only danger in having Audra McDonald open this season's American Songbook series at Lincoln Center is that it's going to be virtually impossible for the roughly 16 acts that will follow to equal the perfection she showed in the first of two concert dates, the second of which will be televised live tonight as part of PBS' Live from Lincoln Center series.

McDonald stood before the gigantic floor-to-ceiling windows in the Allen Room, with that spectacular view down Central Park South, and did what few other performers can do: She made you look at her rather than that beautiful distraction. The wonderfully rich song selection and superbly supportive arrangements by musical director Ted Sperling, coupled with her consummate skill as an actress and her shimmering voice, resulted in the most intoxicating display of talent one could wish for.

The concert was entitled Building Bridges, a play in part on the title of her new album Build a Bridge, which focuses on the work of pop and contemporary composers. But the eclectic repertoire of the concert showed that McDonald is clearly and effectively tossing out pontoons in every direction. She reached out to a younger crowd by singing the charming, politically incorrect "I Wanna Get Married" (with its composer, Nellie McKay at the piano) and delighted cabaretgoers with neo-standards like Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon" and what is perhaps the most deeply moving rendition of "I Won't Mind" (Jeff Blumenkrantz-Libby Saines-Annie Kessler) that we've ever heard. Continuing her support of the next wave of musical theatre composers, she also performed songs by Michael John LaChiusa ("When Lola Sings") and Ricky Ian Gordon ("Cradle and All," with lyrics by Jessica Molaskey). Happily, she chose strong material that made a powerful statement about the gifts of these writers.

However, half of the concert featured songs by some of the musical theater's greatest composers, and it was sheer heaven to hear McDonald put her indelible stamp on songs like "It Might As Well Be Spring" (from State Fair), "Will He Like Me? (from She Loves Me), "When Did I Fall in Love?" (from Fiorello), and "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here" (from On A Clear Day...). And she most definitely thrilled nostalgia buffs when she and special guest Patti LuPone sang the famous Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand duet version of "Get Happy"/"Happy Days Are Here Again." (Patti did Judy and Audra did "Babs," as she called her.)

McDonald is known for her great talent as a dramatic actress -- she has four Tony Awards to prove it -- but she also knows how to make fun of herself. She got laughs aplenty when she performed "Bill" (from Show Boat), explaining that she had foolishly chosen to sing this classic at a recent event honoring Bill Cosby; the comedian apparently didn't appreciate a song with lyrics that said that "Bill" was just an ordinary guy, not too bright, and didn't even dress well. (His wife, Camille, thought it was hilarious.)

She also displayed her wry sense of humor by following that song with an edgy performance of John Mayer's "My Stupid Mouth." And she told a charming story about her young daughter, Zoe, before launching into Stephen Sondheim's "The Glamorous Life" (from the film version of A Little Night Music).

In this era when some singers are lauded for their interpretive skills despite their mediocre voices and others are praised for their vocal ability though they can't act worth a damn, here is Audra McDonald, one of the relatively few performers in our midst who is aces in all areas and gorgeous to boot! Simply put, she's the best we've got -- and she proves it, hands down, in this extraordinary concert. (For information on McDonald's upcoming concert dates, click here.)


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