Praise for Audra McDonald's American Songbook concert. Plus: Hal Linden in The Pirates of Penzance and O'Connor & Vogel in How to be Perfect.
We'd venture a guess that the vast majority of the audience recognized, at most, two or three of the song selections. An adventurous performer, McDonald is using her talent and fame to help promote the work of composers and lyricists whom she admires. The audience is clearly coming to hear her, rather than her material. You can tell this by the reaction she got when she sang one classic musical theater song, "When Did I Fall in Love?" from Fiorello!. The crowd went wild! None of the other selections received that kind of response.
Her material ranged from pop to jazz, but almost all of her choices had musical theater underpinnings in that they were character songs and/or story songs. One could easily imagine them within the structure of a musical. In fact, some of the songs were from musicals that have not yet seen the light of day (and, we dare say, probably never will unless McDonald chooses to star in them). The fact is that this artist can make the most tortured song sound sensational. She's that magnificent -- and, on this occasion, she had great help in the form of a 10-piece orchestra led by Ted Sperling.
Some of the songs were worthwhile. There was the brilliantly acted "My Stupid Mouth" (John Mayer), the warmly romantic "Wonderful You" (Jane Kelly Williams), and the tongue-in-cheek "I Wanna Get Married" (Nellie McKay). Among the better-known numbers were "Political Science" by Randy Newman and "Bein' Green" by Joe Raposo. But, in a sense, it didn't matter what McDonald sang because any opportunity to hear her is a chance to witness brilliance. Would we prefer that she put together a concert of Great American Songbook classics? God, yes! But like Betty Buckley, she sings what she wants to sing and makes the audience come to her. Given the extraordinary level of excellence at which she performs, they will keep coming -- and so will we.
The Pirates of Penzance has just docked at City Center, with Hal Linden starring as the Major-General. He's in robust voice and he gives the production some much needed show-business swagger. Pirates is scheduled to run through January 23 and, if nothing else, it gives us a chance to hear that gorgeous and witty score.
This New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players staging of the beloved operetta is rather stolid, but several of the performers command our attention and keep us engaged. Ross David Crutchlow is a lively and entertaining Pirate King, and the two romantic leads, Andrew MacPhail as Frederick and Laurelyn Watson as Mabel, have lovely voices. Louis Dall'ava is amusing as the "Klutzy Cop," while Betina Hershey is adorable and sweetly comic as one of the Major-General's wards.
Though there were a lot of children at the matinee we attended, Gilbert & Sullivan fare isn't really for kids; the lyrics proved to be way too quick and clever for the tots that surrounded us. Older children? Sure, but not little ones. Parents should take pity on the adults who, with childlike hearts, really want to wrap themselves in the experience of the show.
O'Connor & Vogel: Perfect?
The cabaret duo billed as O'Connor & Vogel has put together a show that's better than they are -- something that doesn't happen very often. Titled How to be Perfect, it's a particularly well-crafted act about relationships, featuring smart and witty combinations of songs and patter. In the hands of gifted performers, this act would be a gem -- but it stars the unpolished Debra Vogel and Brian Tom O'Connor, so it rises and falls with their uneven musical comedy skills.
Here's the crux of the problem: Every time these two perform a song that you know -- and you'll know a lot of them -- they don't provide a better take on it than the one that's in your head. Though you'll admire what they're trying to do, they don't quite do it. This is a more ambitious show than their previous success, Guy & Doll, which was charming. In that show, they didn't overreach themselves; but with How to be Perfect, they have actually conjured up an act that's too perfect for the performers.
It's so unusual in this regard that we suggest you decide for yourself. O'Connor & Vogel have recently had their run extended; click here for their added dates at Don't Tell Mama.