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

THEATER REVIEW: 12x TONY NOMINATED ‘FUN HOME’

Fun_Home_Hot.jpg.pagespeed.ce.sxd7h008XMfj3S2g_wRq“My father’s death was a queer business,” Alison Bechdel writes in her acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home. “Queer in every sense of that multi-valent word.”

While some have used the term “family tragicomic” to describe Bechdel’s book, it is much more than that: it’s both a stirring account of her relationship with her father, Bruce, and the story of her emotional growth. A man who juggled many lives at once, Bruce was a high school English teacher, the head of a family-run funeral home, a husband, a father to three children, and a closeted gay man who was notorious for having affairs with his male students (amongst others). His suicide not long after Alison came out of the closet not only left behind a slew of unanswered questions, but became a defining moment in his daughter’s journey of self-discovery. The resulting story is profound, heartbreaking, and revelatory. And the same is true of its new musical adaptation, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.

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With music by the consistently terrific Jeanine Tesori (Violet; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Shrek the Musical; Caroline, or Change),Fun Home is without a doubt the most gripping musical of the year. It’s one of those rare new musicals that, thanks to its explored themes and masterful book, feels at once completely timeless and unlike anything that has come before it. No wonder that it received a staggering 12 nominations when the Tony Awards were announced on Tuesday (tying with An American in Paris for the most total nominations).

As Alison navigates her journey, she’s played by a trio of actresses, each depicting different ages of her life. Showing us Alison at 43, Beth Malone plays the cartoonist at the same age her father was when he died. Acting as a narrator of sorts, this Alison reflects upon her father’s suicide and her life leading up to it as a way of understanding their relationship and contemplating what his life and death meant to her. Malone, who originated this role in The Public Theater’s off-Broadway production of the show in 2013, sympathetically portrays Alison as a secure, self-aware adult who yearns to make sense of her father’s legacy in an attempt to bring balance to the memories of her unstable childhood.

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As 19-year-old Alison, Emily Skeggs is a marvel. This Alison has just left her small-town and Victorian-era Pennsylvania home for college and is discovering what independence means and feels like. For the first time, she allows herself to reach beyond her comfort zones and figure out who she really is. Skeggs’ voice is gorgeous and her solo, “Changing My Major,” is a true comedic highlight in the otherwise largely serious production. In the song, Alison has just had her first lesbian sexual encounter and is reveling in the afterglow. She sings affectionately about her lover Joan and the world that she has opened up for her. Skeggs’ performance brims with youthful excitement but feels like it is delivered by a seasoned veteran. In fact, you may be shocked to learn that she is only now making her Broadway debut.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Sydney Lucas, who plays Alison at 9-years-old. Lucas’ remarkable command of her character makes it immediately clear why the role made her the youngest Obie Awards recipient in history, and garnered her Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League nominations. Now, she’s also up for a Tony and will face off in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role category against co-stars Skeggs and Judy Kuhn (who plays Alison’s mother, Helen). While I believe that the three Alisons should have been given a shared Tony (à la Billy Elliott) to recognize each of their individual brilliant performances, it’s Lucas who shouldn’t be leaving Radio City Music Hall empty-handed if only one will win.

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Lucas’ Alison rejects wearing the pretty dresses her father has chosen for her and coyly asks for crew cuts. But, above all, she longs for her father’s love and approval, so she delays pushing for what she wants to accommodate what he thinks is best for her (this results in a heartbreaking scene in which she starts to express herself artistically and Bruce won’t rest until she corrects her technique). Lucas’ acting is nothing short of extraordinary, in particular when she sees a butch mail delivery woman and for the first time feels a sense of connection and that she’s not alone in the world. In the scene’s accompanying song, “Ring of Keys,” this revelation is written all over Lucas’ face and its game-changing impact is pronounced with every syllable of her unforgettable performance. Lucas isn’t just one of the best child actors on Broadway today, she’s one of the best actors period.

But it’s not only the myriad of Alisons who make Fun Home so exhilarating. Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris’ layered depiction of Bruce illustrates him as a man desperate to use the appearance of perfection as a mask for his own pain. This creates a haunting portrait of someone too ashamed of himself to ever fully be able to love anyone else. And as Helen, Kuhn expertly plays a woman conflicted between the life she knows and the truth that could make it all come undone. Her nuanced performance will make you want to hug and comfort her and also shake her and tell her to run.

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Rounding out the cast are Roberta Colindrez as Joan, who, with her effortless charisma, excellently counterbalances Skeggs’ naivety, and Joel Perez, who terrifically plays an assortment of Bruce’s secret lovers. As Alison’s brothers when they’re children, Zell Steele Morrow and Oscar Williams are nothing short of exceptional when they join their sister for “Come to the Fun Home,” an adorable fake commercial the trio makes for their family business. It involves using a casket as a prop in ways that only kids could do without it being horribly creepy and inappropriate. This is the type of musical number that will have the entire audience smiling and provides a nostalgic yearning for a child’s boundless imagination to anyone watching.

With such personal source material, Fun Home impeccably retains its sense of intimacy in the Circle in the Square Theatre. Sam Gold’s intelligent direction allows theatergoers to feel like they’re in the Bechdels’ living room with them, almost watching the events unfold before their eyes directly alongside Malone’s Alison as she remembers them. No matter where you’re seated, the actors play to all sides of the theater, allowing the show to keep some of that Off-Broadway smaller scale feel that is rarely a part of big Broadway musicals.

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Of all the shows to choose from this Broadway season, Fun Home will surely be the one to stick with you the longest after the curtain falls. It’s as important as it is beautiful, with a powerful story told by enormously talented actors. Whether you’ve read Bechdel’s book or not, this musical will not just tug at your heartstrings, it’ll stay with you as one of the freshest and most exciting contemporary new shows of this century. When the Tony’s come around in June, don’t be surprised when all the other nominees are disappointed in the wake of its success.

Originally published on PopBytes