This article was originally published on Cleveland.com
by Kevin McLaughlin
If there is a more complete singing-and-acting talent than Audra McDonald, I can’t think of one. For a generation she has poured her heart out and done so with such vocal and dramatic authority it is difficult to imagine what we did before she came along. The near-capacity crowd at Blossom Music Center on Sunday was treated to a delightful program of Broadway standards and unguarded reflections on life and living.
Backed by The Cleveland Orchestra and McDonald’s own rhythm section, and led by her longtime music director Andy Einhorn, she presented a wide-ranging program as a survey of her own career and sometimes society at large.
In June 2020, McDonald co-founded Black Theater United, an organization with the mission of combating systemic racism within the theater community and nationally. Themes of racial and individual pride sometimes surfaced on Sunday’s program.
The Overture to Carousel led directly to McDonald’s entrance song, a Jerry Herman expression of personal authenticity, “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles.
“Cornet Man,” from Jule Styne’s Funny Girl, was a jazzy hoot. After telling an amusing story about competing as a soloist with her show choir in high school, she sang that song with every one of its suggestive lyrics, convinced of her qualification — at the age of 14 — to do so. Trumpeter Michael Sachs let loose with plunger muted growls and stratospheric punctuations.
McDonald began, but then let the audience sing along to Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Why don’t more performers do this? You know the audience is just busting to have a go at it. This is how, McDonald said, you earn your “Soprano Card.” And “Soprano Island” is where you go if you regularly sing Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which she now does. And on Sunday, she did it au natural (without a microphone), because, well, she can.
Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” received a clever treatment by arranger Larry Hochman. After a joke beginning with Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and a rarely heard introspective verse, the band gave in to hard swing, letting McDonald and company show off their jazz chops. Even the audience held their own when invited to sing along.
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