Audra McDonald was a voice of a hope at Tanglewood
LENOX — Let's be blunt right up front: The incomparable singer-actress Audra McDonald moves many listeners to tears. Her confident self-awareness, sense of vulnerability and boundless empathy, coupled with her joyous sense of humor, make her the consummate artist of American popular and Broadway standards.
Offering a generous 16-song set, choosing not to break the mood and momentum with an intermission, McDonald returned to Tanglewood on Sunday, declaring "it's a great honor to be in this beautiful place with these wonderful musicians."
About to turn 48 and mother of a toddler named Sally James with her second husband, actor Will Swenson, who is now performing at Barrington Stage, she reached new heights of vocal technique, deeper, husky lows, stratospheric highs, able to soar above the Boston Pops at full volume, with every line of every song filled with drama, wit, and theatrical impact.
Her longtime music director Andy Einhorn on the podium and her on-tour trio (pianist Brian Hertz, Mark Vanderpoel on bass and percussionist Gene Lewin) enhanced her wide-ranging, well-curated selection of iconic songs by composer-lyricists Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Irving Berlin and contemporary Broadway luminaries like Jason Robert Brown ("Stars and the Moon" from "Songs for a New Age") and Adam Gwon (the heartbreakingly poignant "I'll Be Here" recollection of 9/11 from "Ordinary Days").
McDonald's comfort level with a most-receptive audience made for an intimate afternoon of amusing family lore — teenage daughter Zoe's "review" at a tender age ("Mom, your singing makes my ears cry") and, several years ago, Zoe's text after her mother's big solo during NBC's "The Sound of Music Live!" telecast ("Mom, where are the dryer sheets, I have to do laundry").
Demonstrating deep respect for the canon of show music, she presented personal anecdotes and background on how the less well-known songs were created by composers and lyricists. As the winner of six Tony awards for her musical theater work, she inhabited the protagonists of the songs as if she were on the Broadway stage.
Opening with "I Am What I Am" from "La Cage aux Folles" (by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein), McDonald acknowledged it was "Pride Day" for the LGBTQ community.
Her "Summertime" is the definitive version of the Gershwin classic. Lerner and Loewe's "I Could Have Danced All Night," with audience singalong, was delightfully campy as she urged the sopranos in the audience to "belt it out."
"Cornet Man" from "Funny Girl" was soulful and brassy, while "Moonshine Lullaby" from Irving Berlin's masterpiece "Annie Get Your Gun" had a lived-in feeling, even though McDonald acknowledged that, until recently, she had never performed any of his songs. "He was the immigrant who wrote `God Bless America,'" McDonald reminded the audience, eliciting an overwhelming ovation.
And she performed with loving care several less familiar yet top-shelf offerings like "Chain of Love" from the obscure 1971 lost treasure, "The Grass Harp," and "Vanilla Ice Cream" from "She Loves Me" by the Bock-Harnick team.
McDonald introduced the "PG-13" profanity-laced "Facebook Song" by Kate Miller-Heidke as balm for anyone emotionally shattered by a former lover who asks his "ex" to become his "friend" on Facebook. An outrageous notion, one that many in the audience related to from personal experience. Sorry, can't print the payoff lyric here.
Ahead of her knockout version of "Being Alive" from her friend and mentor Stephen Sondheim's "Company," McDonald acknowledged how she forgot the lyrics to "The Glamorous Life" during the 2017 PEN Literary Awards. Distracted by a Jumbotron video projecting her own image back to her as she sang, she was mortified, the audience was stunned, Sondheim buried his head in his hands. But she recovered and managed to complete the performance.
That's how it went, as McDonald took the audience into her confidence, unafraid to display vulnerability, but basking in the embrace of her fans.
Along the way, she saluted the late Barbara Cook, a close friend and adviser — "everything I know about concertizing, I learned from her."
Too many standouts to list here, but the incandescent lullaby "I Won't Mind" from the un-produced musical "The Other Franklin" (William, son of Benjamin) deserves special mention, as does the powerful medley of "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" from "South Pacific" and "Children Will Listen" from "Into the Woods."
And her closer and encore, "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and — "for children everywhere" — a soaring "Over the Rainbow" (complete with the often-omitted introductory verse), were presented as beacons of hope for listeners traumatized by our national government.
For 90 minutes of sheer, impassioned artistry and heartfelt conviction that we can rise to be our better selves, Audra McDonald transported us to a better world where all children are safe, as she performed her personal mantra from Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's "Do Re Mi" — "Make just one someone happy; Make just one heart the heart you sing to "
For the privilege of sharing her humanity and boundless talent, she earns our unending gratitude while urging us to believe "love is the answer, Someone to love is the answer."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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