Performing Arts

Audra McDonald exceeds expectations with eclectic program and incredible performance

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald File photo

Audra McDonald has a power that is unmatched by most. She is a versatile, multi-award-winning performer with a regal presence, a delivery that is sincere and funny and a soprano voice of force and sweetness.

Her rescheduled performance for the Harriman-Jewell Series on Monday was the final stop in a multinational 62-city tour. She and her trio performed with seasoned élan in a concert lasting nearly two hours with no intermission. They treated the audience in Helzberg Hall to a taste of the Great American Songbook, some favorites, some new, all accompanied by a story.

They opened with the ferocious “Sing Me a Happy Song” by composer (and Kansas City native) John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. Leading from that strong, dramatic start McDonald balanced serious fare with frivolous, sharing stories of her life and career and casually bantering, quizzing the crowd on Broadway musical trivia.

Her trio consisted of musical director Andy Einhorn on piano, Mark Vanderpoel on bass and Gene Lewin on drums and percussion. Multifaceted performers all, they also accompanied McDonald on a cheeky ukulele-chorus version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk about Love” with amusing Audra-specific lyrics and as back-up vocals for Gabriel Kahane’s “Craigslistlieder.”

She included repertoire classics like “Climb Every Mountain” and the scorching “Maybe This Time,” as well as encouraging audience participation in the popular “Danced All Night” (joking, “Let’s get it out of your system.”).

And as a wonderful surprise, McDonald stepped away from the microphone for an acoustic “Summertime,” dusky and sublime. She also shared the work of newer songwriters, such as Shaina Taub’s touching “The Tale of Bear and Otter” and Adam Gwon’s passionate “I’ll Be Here,” alluding to the tragedy of 9/11.

After Gwon’s piece, McDonald wiped away tears and offered her response to the questions and trials of life with the mantra-in-song “Make Someone Happy.” Along with personal reminiscences, she discussed her advocacy for civil rights with Kander and Ebb’s “Go Back Home” from “The Scottsboro Boys,” maintaining control of the hall with crystalline silences.

This advocacy for social change continued into the encore, when she introduced the iconic “Over the Rainbow” as “a song in honor of home and hope and dreams.” McDonald explained they performed this song all over the world as a rallying cry for marriage equality, something that did not exist in this country when they started their tour, asking, on the last phrase, “Will you sing with me?”