REVIEW: OFF-BROADWAY’S “THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY”

ABS-KeyArt-WithTagJames Lecesne’s list of accomplishments will make you feel like the laziest person on earth.

A seasoned Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran with Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards under his belt, Lecesne is an Emmy-nominated television actor/writer, and a three-time novelist. He is also the executive producer of the 2009 documentary film, After The Storm, about the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the lives of twelve young people in New Orleans. On top of that, he wrote the screenplay for the short film, Trevor, which not only won him an Academy Award, but also inspired the founding of the Trevor Project, the only nationwide 24-hour suicide prevent and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and questioning youth.

Now, Lecesne has returned to the New York stage for the limited 12-week Off-Broadway run of his touching, heartfelt, and important 90-minute one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Take that, James Franco.

Based upon Lecesne’s own young adult novel, Absolute Brightness takes place in a small New Jersey town that has been shaken to the core by the disappearance of a flamboyant 14-year-old boy named Leonard Pelkey. Lecesne portrays every character as they individually try to piece together the puzzle surrounding what happened to Pelkey, and reflect upon how he changed their lives – and inadvertently, the town itself. As these characters think back on their interactions and relationships with Pelkey, they realize just how much he challenged those around him simply by refusing to conform to any pre-conceived notions of who he should be and instead always stayed true to himself.

1 Signature Photo - James Lecesne as Chuck in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey - Photo by Matthew Murphy

When Detective Chuck DeSantis, the show’s narrator, reveals that Pelkey’s body was found at the bottom of a lake and that he was undoubtedly murdered, it’s up to Pelkey’s family, friends, and neighbors to honor his memory by celebrating the same vivaciousness that tragically ended up killing him. As DeSantis speaks to these individuals in an attempt to solve the mystery of Pelkey’s death, he encounters people like Pelkey’s aunt, the owner of a local hair salon, her timid 16-year-old daughter, an elderly German man who owns a clock repair shop, a mobster’s widow, a teenage bully who is more interested in video games than remembering his former peer, and the head of the drama school where Pelkey was rehearsing The Tempestprior to his murder.

“Several years after publishing the novel, I found myself still thinking about this story,” Lecesne told New York Theatre Review, explaining his decision to adapt his work for the stage. “So much had happened since then to make me aware of the problems of bullying and its effect on kids who insist on being themselves. And so I began to explore how I might tell the same story for a more adult audience, from a different point of view and on my feet in front of an audience.”

There was the special difficulty of deciding which characters he could play. “Let’s just say that the idea of portraying certain characters presented a daunting challenge – would the audience accept me, a mature male, as say a 16-year-old girl and without a touch of makeup or costume?” he added. “But one thing I’ve learned from my years of experience is that nothing is more inspiring than the ability of a theater audience to make the necessary imaginative leap.”

3 James Lecesne as Gloria in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey - Photo by Matthew Murphy

Yet Lecesne makes that leap seem far from difficult. He morphs into these characters with hardly any transition time, and the way he fully embodies them is truly a marvel to behold. Instead of relying on costume changes or props, Lecesne radically changes his voice and physicality to properly encapsulate each character. His remarkable attention to the smallest of details completely transforms him right before the audience’s eyes – despite the fact that he never leaves the stage or changes out of the simple tucked in button-down and dress pants he wears throughout the show. In fact, his portrayal of each character is so convincing and spot-on that it’s easy to forget that there is only one person on stage. The exceptional and colorful ways that he brings each of them to life with such distinct personalities and mannerisms is beyond inspired; his performance never wavers, no matter if he’s playing a man, woman, child, old person, or anyone in between.

Another part of what makes Absolute Brightness such a fascinating piece of work is how it tackles the ripple effect that Pelkey’s death has. For some characters that knew the boy directly, his tragedy highlights how much change and introspection is needed to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. And for those who didn’t know him personally, his story still resonates as one that will forever change and shape their town. They realize that his bravery brought out their own cowardice, and that their insistence that he “tone down” his self-expression didn’t help him – and instead only fueled the hate that led to his demise. The only silver lining is that what happened to Pelkey opened the eyes of an entire community that might have otherwise never known better than to continue rejecting someone purely for telling their truth.

Featuring a gorgeous original score by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening; American Psycho),Absolute Brightness is a one-of-a-kind and timeless theater experience that will stay with you long after Lecesne’s final bow. It’s a powerful story that dares its audience to defy convention and encourages them to embrace their true selves, no matter how much that might conflict with social expectations. And above all, it reminds us that love will always outlast hate.

Click here to buy your tickets to The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, now playing through October 4th at the Westside Theatre in New York City.

2 James Lecesne as Chuck in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey - Photo by Matthew Murphy

Originally Published on PopBytes

AUDRA MCDONALD & WILL SWENSON IN ‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN’ AT THE WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

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It’s been eight years since Audra McDonald and Will Swenson shared the stage.

After they met during the 2007 Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, the pair got married and quickly became the Brangelina-level power couple of the theater world. Since then, Swenson has garnered a Tony nomination for his turn in the acclaimed 2009 revival of Hair, and landed starring roles in high-profile shows like Les Miserables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. McDonald has gone on to cement her status as modern Broadway royalty – not only because her six Tony Awards make her the record holder for the most wins, but also because she’s the first person to win in every single acting category (most recently for her astounding transformation into the late Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill). In between making theater history, McDonald has taken center stage at Carnegie Hall, co-starred in Disney’s upcoming live action remake of Beauty and the Beast and the latest Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash. She also has begun gearing up for the original Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, alongside actors Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell, set to open in April 2016. So for a couple as busy and in demand as McDonald and Swenson, the idea of spending the summer working together was a no-brainer.

20188930090_55c39a0074_zNow playing at the revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, A Moon for the Misbegotten reunites McDonald and Swenson in a professional setting. During 110 in the Shade, Swanson was an understudy (for Bill Starbuck), and although he did go on opposite his future wife, they never rehearsed together. Moon marks the first time that the duo have collaborated on a piece of theater from the ground up, and getting to dive into writer Eugene O’Neill’s emotionally vast drama together has opened up an entirely new and rewarding chapter in their relationship.

“We’re getting to know each other in a completely different way,” McDonald explained to Broadway.com about working with her husband. “We’re learning who we are in the creative process. It’s a new experience to get to know someone you think you already know so well, but in a different light.”

“Because I’ve never really worked up a show with Audra I feel like I’m learning things about her that I had no idea about. We’ve been together for years and years. You think you know somebody pretty intimately but there’s this huge part of Audra that I haven’t ever really got to experience,” Swenson told The Huffington Post. “It’s been thrilling actually because … I say this not just because she’s my wife … but it’s been amazing. I feel like I’m learning something every day the way that she is this truth-seeking missile who will absolutely mine a moment within an inch of its life to find the truthfulness in it and the way that that has a ripple effect throughout the coming moments,” he continued. “I’m just learning a lot from working with her.”

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Written by Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten is a semi-sequel to the playwright’s seminal work, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which will be returning to Broadwaythis March with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr.). In the play, Long Day’s Journey character Jamie Tyrone (Swenson) is older but as self-destructive and dissolute as ever. He’s the landlord of a Connecticut farm and is allegedly preparing to sell the property out from under its tenants, Phil Hogan (in a riveting performance by Glynn Turman) and his daughter, Josie (McDonald). When the Hogans become aware of Tyrone’s plans, they concoct a scheme for Josie to seduce Tyrone and blackmail him into selling the farm to them for the significantly lower price that he once promised them. But as Josie kicks their plan into action, she and Tyrone embark on a harrowing journey through the course of one night that exposes their innermost darkest truths, fragile desires, and haunting pasts. Will they achieve the redemption they seek by the time dawn comes? Or are these two souls too damaged to be repaired?

Ripe with meaty monologues and gritty character unraveling, the play provides for an incredible actor’s showcase for both McDonald and Swenson. Unsurprisingly, their chemistry is palpable, and both are excellent in their layered portrayals of these tortured individuals who somehow find temporary solace and peace in one another’s arms.

Staging the infamously dense O’Neill can often prove to be a tricky feat. So in a successful attempt to be more accessible and impactful for contemporary audiences, this production employs race as a way to underline the socio-economic differences between the Hogans and Tyrone. Set in 1923, the original play depicted the Hogans as Irish-Americans (O’Neill wrote that Josie had “the map of Ireland stamped on her face”). But in this new telling of the story, the Hogans are African-American and Tyrone is the lone Caucasian.

20350740266_642a7babbc_zIn the show’s program, director Gordon Edelstein elaborates on this redirected focus. “I have had a long relationship with A Moon for the Misbegotten and the work of Eugene O’Neill, and when [Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director] Mandy Greenfield and I began discussions about a way to present this work with revitalizing eyes, we began to explore the notion of making the Hogans African-American tenant farmers,” he divulges. “It is certainly true that a minor theme in the play is the relationship between representatives of two classes of Irish-Americans in early twentieth century America. Those distinctions are lost on contemporary audiences much like the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays is, for the most part, lost on us today. We hope the juxtaposition of whites and blacks in this production illuminates O’Neill’s themes of class and power with an even greater clarity. The music of the language can be heard anew, much like when you hear a refreshing new interpretation of a piece of music that you thought you knew—further proof of the fungibility of great theatrical art. Great plays are about human beings and it’s the human experience that is being portrayed here, always shifting depending on who is doing it and how it is being done.”

But what’s unchanged are how the characters grow and subsequently interact with one another. Josie starts off as a thick-skinned, no-nonsense, earthy woman who is unafraid to voice her opinion and assert her dominance over those who try to challenge her. As the show progresses, her walls are slowly taken down and we see the nurturing and compassionate person inside who simply yearns for earnest human connection and understanding. Similarly, Tyrone is introduced as a selfish, smug city boy whose priorities in the country don’t extend beyond alcohol, sex, and his own financial gain, no matter at whose expense. Yet as he too begins to shed the armor he’s initially presented with, Tyrone reveals himself to be a vulnerable, pained, and rather broken man. As a result, these two characters who at first seemed worlds apart, are able to relate to one another in a way that makes Moon a dark, captivating, and ultimately tragic love story.

Adding literal depth to the production is the evocative scenic design by the renowned Ming Cho Lee. Lee’s design calls for an open, melancholy sky that falls behind the Hogans’ farm in a rounded way that appears as though it stretches far beyond the theater’s walls. The farm is located atop a hill, and the hike that the actors must take when coming and going to and from the property lends a striking degree of realism that brilliantly plays off the sense of intimacy that the script demands. The breathtaking design almost suggests that with so much world around them left to explore, the Hogans and Tyrone have imprisoned themselves by clinging to this small piece of land and allowing it to dictate who they evolve into. It’s no wonder, then, that the play opens with Josie helping her brother (played by Howard W. Overshown) run away to make his own way in the world free from the confines of the farm.

So will Moon follow in the footsteps of other recent Williamstown Theatre Festival productions (like The Elephant Man and The Visit) and transfer to the Great White Way?

“These are notoriously difficult roles. I wouldn’t want to step out on Broadway to try Josie for the first time,” McDonald confessed to The Boston Globe. “It’s great to have a place up here [in the Berkshires] to start to crack it open. It’s a safe, fertile environment in which to take a big risk.”

And it’s a risk that more than pays off. With A Moon for the Misbegotten, McDonald and Swenson not only triumph in showing off their artistic versatility and seemingly limitless partnership, they also resurrect an American classic in a way that makes it feel exciting, fresh and poignant for today’s audiences.

Click here to buy your tickets for A Moon for the Misbegotten, now playing through August 23rd at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Originally published on PopBytes

FIVE ESSENTIAL BROADWAY SHOWS THIS SPRING

As for the coveted Best Musical prize, the showdown will be between the intimate and hauntingly beautiful Fun Home (which I reviewed here) and the all-around brilliant, hilarious and blockbuster Something Rotten.

The Tony Awards also signify the end of the current Broadway season. Below, take a look at some of the most creative shows currently playing, and be sure to grab your tickets now. Some may become impossible to see after Tony’s success and some may close in their wake. Either way, this was one of the most daring seasons in recent years – and that in itself is something to be celebrated.

IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU

STARRING Tyne Daly, Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka, Harriet Harris, Lisa Howard, Montego Glover, Adam Heller, Nick Spangler, Edward Hibbert, Josh Grisetti, Michael X. Martin, Anne L. Nathan

WHERE Brooks Atkinson Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 0

STORY It’s Rebecca (Boggess) and Brian’s (Burtka) wedding day, and their polar opposite families have gathered to celebrate the impending nuptials. But when a few surprise guests – including Rebecca’s neurotic ex-boyfriend (Grisetti) – show up, all bets are off and mayhem ensues. What deep secrets will be revealed? And what will they mean for the couple when it’s time to walk down the aisle?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Don’t let the Tony Awards snub fool you. This David Hyde Pierce-directed show is a laugh-out-loud satire and adorable exploration of love and family that turns the conventional wedding day comedy inside out. Think Meet The Parents mixed with a Jewish spin on My Big Fat Greek Weddingand the romantic musical chairs of The Family Stone. You’ll be smiling throughout this entire one act show.

STANDOUT SCENE The soulful song, “Jenny’s Blues,” finds the bride’s sister, Jenny (Howard) finally standing up for herself to her family. It’s the show’s biggest number and Howard cements herself as a rising star to watch with her powerhouse vocals and passionate delivery. See for yourself when she performs the song at this Sunday’s Tonys.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

STARRING Robert Fairchild, Leanne Cope, Max von Essen, Brandon Uranowitz, Jill Paice, Veanne Cox

WHERE Palace Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 12

STORY Inspired by the 1951 MGM film, An American In Paris tells the story of three men – two American soldiers and a local Parisian – vying for the affection of the same French woman. Through the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin, this quartet must navigate the city of love right after World War II.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Simply put, the dancing is nothing short of breathtaking. Tied with Fun Home for the most Tony nominations this year, this show is a visually stunning homage to the musicals of the Golden Age. It looks and sounds like a classic, making it the perfect show to reintroduce previous and older generations of Broadway fans to contemporary theater.

STANDOUT SCENE The show’s climax, a triumphant 14-minute ballet, is unlike anything on Broadway today. It’s impossible not to marvel at how meticulously choreographed and flawlessly executed this sequence is. It’s not often that an audience gives a standing ovation before the curtain call, but in this case, it is more than warranted.

THE VISIT

STARRING Chita Rivera, Tom Nelis, Mary Beth Peil, Rick Holmes, Matthew Deming

WHERE Lyceum Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 5

STORY The world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, returns to her impoverished hometown after fleeing it decades ago. Her mission: to exact revenge on those who had wronged her in her youth. Her homecoming challenges the moral core of the town and asks the eternal question: how far are we willing to betray our humanity when offered a glimpse of previously unimagined riches?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Not only does the show mark the Broadway return of the legendary Chita Rivera, it’s also the final collaboration of the prolific writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Frequent Kander and Ebb performer (and muse) Liza Minnelli best noted how monumental this is in her recent USA Today op-ed: “To give you an idea of the kind of impact they had, at least one Kander and Ebb show has been running on Broadway during 41 of the last 50 years. This year alone, there have been three. Their work will live on in revivals until the end of time, of course, but the thrill and privilege of hearing their words and music sung out loud for the first time is singular.”

STANDOUT SCENE When Claire first arrives, nobody in the struggling town realizes her true intentions. Instead, they think she has returned to lend a helping hand. But when she dramatically reveals the nature of her visit and exposes the people from her past for who they really are, shock immediately morphs into a ripple effect of torn alliances, pointed fingers, and bloodlust. Meanwhile, as Claire deviously watches the town begin to unravel as a result of her announcement, she already basks in her victory – and thus gives Rivera one of the juiciest and most devious roles of her renowned career.

GIGI

STARRING Vanessa Hudgens, Victoria Clark, Corey Cott, Dee Hoty, Howard McGillin, Steffanie Leigh

WHERE Neil Simon Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 1

STORY Another tale of romance in Paris based on a classic Leslie Caron film,Gigi tells the story of a young girl’s journey into womanhood at the turn of the 20th century. As she’s being groomed to be “perfect marriage material,” Gigi grows increasingly more interested in cinema, traveling, and speaking her mind. But when she and her lifelong friend realize the depth of their feelings for one another, will they live happily ever after or fall victim to the city ofamour?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Coupled with Catherine Zuber’s colorful costumes, Derek McLane’s art nouveau fortified set design makes for a gorgeous backdrop that bring early 1900’s Paris very much alive. The meticulous attention to detail allows audiences to feel like they’ve stepped into a Toulouse Lautrec painting. Plus, the music and lyrics of Alan Jay Learner and Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady) are fully restored with songs from both the film and the original 1973 stage production, breathing new life into timeless numbers like “I Remember It Well,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” and “It’s A Bore.”

STANDOUT SCENE The act one closer, “The Night They Invented Champagne,” is a celebratory and bubbly spectacle that makes Hudgens’ Broadway debut seem like something that should have happened long ago. It’s the show’s catchiest song (and rightfully the one chosen to be performed at the Tonys) and Hudgens shines as her title character begins her transformation from innocent little girl into a confident, modern woman.

HAND TO GOD

STARRING Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Sarah Stiles, Michael Oberholtzer

WHERE Booth Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 5

STORY Jason, a shy and quiet boy in a tiny religious town in Texas, deals with his beloved hand puppet, Tyrone, developing a foul-mouthed, unfiltered, and boisterous identity of its own. Acting as Jason’s voice when he doesn’t have one and getting him into trouble with everyone from the town pastor to the school bully to his crush to his mother, Tyrone flips Jason’s entire world upside down. But as Jason loses more and more control of Tyrone, what will the repercussions be for him and for those he’s terrorizing?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT If Avenue Q and teen cult film Idle Hands had a child, this would be it. While not nearly as powerful as its Best Play competitor The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Hand to God is a jarring, crude and filthy examination of what happens when people repress their true feelings.

STANDOUT SCENE The first time that Jason realizes the extent of his powerlessness over Tyrone, actor Steven Boyer performs a full out screaming match with himself. After Jason tries to get rid of Tyrone, the puppet comes back with a vengeance, threatening him so that he will never attempt to free himself of him again. Lying in bed, Jason doesn’t know how to handle the small Tyrone towering over him and barking orders. He cowers in fear, completely surrendering to his creation.

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH CHEYENNE JACKSON

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This fall, Cheyenne Jackson will show off a brand new and dark side of himself as one of the leads of the upcoming fifth installation of American Horror Story opposite Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer.

After successful recurring roles on shows like Glee and 30 Rock, the acclaimed 39-year-old actor is no stranger to television. He’s also appeared in 18 films, such as United 93, Love Is Strange, and Lola Versus. His diverse career consists of eight Broadway shows, including the original productions of All Shook Up, Xanadu and Finian’s Rainbow. And on top of all that, his voice has been featured on a dozen different albums, including a recently Grammy nominated West Side Story recording with the San Francisco Symphony.

But before he gets to work on the top secret American Horror Story, Jackson will return to his stage roots for a headlining concert at New York’s revered Town Hall venue on Friday, June 12 (buy tickets here). I caught up with Cheyenne about this upcoming show, his plans to return to Broadway and release a new album, this weekend’s Tony Awards, his love for Taylor Swift, and more.

NAGORSKI: What is a distinguishing characteristic about your Town Hall show on June 12 that will make it differ from your previous concerts?

JACKSON: It’s my last big show before I begin 8 months of American Horror Story so it’s kind of the “best of” all of my different shows. It’ll include my favorites and songs people have often requested.

What will the ratio of covers to original music be?

5 to 1 I’m guessing.

CheyenneAlso performing at the show will be Laura Benanti. What made you choose her as the one to share your stage with? And will you be performing any music together or will these be completely separate sets?

She’s a great friend and we’ve only done one show together and I just really wanted to sing with her again. We’ll be singing together.

Is this a one-off show or do you have more touring plans through the rest of the year?

One off. This is it for a long time so I’m going to go big.

Do you have any plans for a follow-up solo album to 2013’s I’m Blue, Skies?

Yes! The album is half done, I’m just trying to make myself sit down and finish!

Earlier this year, you released the charity single, “Find The Best of Me.” How did you initially get involved with amfAR and what made this the perfect song to release as a benefit for them?

I’ve been an ambassador for amfAR for 8 years. I love them so much and when Dan and Laura Curtis asked me to sing a song for charity, it was a no brainier.

Currently, what/who are the most played albums and artists on your iPod?

I could lie and pick something super cool, but honestly if I look at my most played, it’s an even mix of Broadway, top 40, some obscure jazz, and opera. Taylor Swift is in there too.  Sue me, she makes good music.

Recently, you had a residency at Café Carlyle, where you covered Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory.” What can you tell us about working with her on American Hotel Story: Hotel and is there anything that you can tease/share about your character on the show?

I could tell you details about American Horror Story but then I’d have to kill you with Lady Gaga’s meat dress.

Belated congratulations on your wedding! How will you and Jason be celebrating your one year anniversary this September?

Thank you! I’ll be working so we can’t leave town but I’m sure we’ll do something special and chill.

Next February, you’ll be one of the headliners of the Broadway on the High Seas cruise alongside performers such as Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole, Liz Callaway, Judy Kuhn, and more. What are you looking forward to most about this experience and what is the one item you’ll have to take on board to keep you from getting homesick?

Hanging with my peers is what’s the most fun and it’s not long enough of a trip to get homesick.

You’ve often mentioned that 9/11 signified a huge turning point in your life in that it gave you the confidence to become a performer. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?

I innately felt after 9/11 like life was slipping me by, and at 27 I decided to follow my dream of being a professional actor. It made me really feel how precious life is and I went for it.

Do you have any plans to return to Broadway anytime soon? If not, what type of show would be the most attractive to you to lure you back to the Great White Way?

I keep trying! Every year I’m offered something great and I try and make it work but it hasn’t happened yet. I’d love to do something new. I love revivals, but I’ve done enough of those for a while. Somebody write me something!

This year’s Tony Awards are being hosted by Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth on June 7. What or who are you most excited about seeing at the ceremony?

So many! I loved Hand To God, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time, and On The 20th Century. Hopefully I’ll get to see Fun Home and Something Rotten before the awards.

You have openly spoken about your struggle with alcoholism. What role did music have in your journey to sobriety?

Not an overtly huge one, but definitely a comfort to me and a conduit for expressing my pain.

What have been both the most rewarding and challenging roles you’ve played to date? And what is your dream theatrical role?

Rewarding?  Sonny in Xanadu, Danny in 30 Rock, and Billy in Behind the Candelabra (I only had two lines, but it was extremely rewarding). The most difficult was Mark Bingham in United 93. My dream theatrical role hasn’t been written yet.

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Originally published on PopBytes

CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes