Music at its best should thrill us, shake us up, elevate us, run us over, lift us up, sweep us out of this world and back again so we’re elated and thoroughly exhausted. That doesn’t happened often, but it was the order of the evening when Audra McDonald appeared with her music director and pianist Andy Einhorn, bassist Mark Vanderpoel and drummer Gene Lewin Sunday, Nov. 6, at the Van Wezel.
McDonald, who earned an unprecedented three Tony’s before she was 30, followed by another in 2004, is one of the world’s greatest singers. She’s up there with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Barbara Streisand, Bing Crosby and Luciano Pavarotti. Yet, to most Sarasotans, she’s probably known best for her role of Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC’s “Private Practice.” I say this because for the 1,000 or so people in attendance Sunday evening, she was the superstar she is. But how I wish lines had formed around the Van Wezel, breaking down the doors, screaming to get in. If you weren’t there, you missed the performer of the century.
We’ve all heard great singers. But when a singer is also a consummate actor, story teller and charmer, we enter a different world, and that’s the world Sunday night’s audience was in. And we knew it, roaring, cheering, stomping and clamoring for more.
Her first song, “When Did I Fall In Love?” left no doubt we were in love with this woman. Modulations up and up and up took the classically trained singer-who-can-sing-anything into stratospheric heights, flying like an eagle filled with the joy and astonishment of first love and pulling us, like a bunch of Lois Lanes soaring with Superman. (I can’t help it. It’s her fault I’m writing like this ... )
It wasn’t just the singing, which is extraordinary. It’s McDonald’s ability to open herself to strangers, turning us into fast friends in a matter of minutes through stories about her life, her beliefs and her family. She introduced us to an “elderly pixie” she met in Cambridge, England, who sang “My Buddy” to her and, she was so impressed, she sang it for us. She lulled us with Irving Berlin’s “Moonshine Lullaby” in a rendition so different from Ethel Merman’s it was like hearing it for the first time. She took us “Into the Woods” and turned our world upside down as we hung from a beanstalk, met some giants, then a witch, then a child and then a prince.
George Gershwin was on her list but, like Sondheim, she revisited, “He Loves and She Loves,” leading us through the woods of equality to ponder, “So why can’t you love and I love, too?” Who does that sort of thing on a concert program? Who, but McDonald, asks us to think while we listen?
She told us about her father, an amateur pilot, who died when his plane crashed. She said that he’d urged her to accompany herself (yes, she’s also a pianist), but she’d told him she was afraid to play in front of an audience. After he died, she made a point of playing at least one song in each show; quite a tribute to a man we’d like to have known.
There were also three contemporary songs, written like German Lieder (but, then, aren’t all great songs “art songs”?), that were based on, of all things, Craigslist. Hilarious! And we understood almost every word even though some of them went by faster than the Internet. There were gorgeous lullabies that painted a picture of her daughter, who hates her mother’s singing and is embarrassed by her role as the angel-dust sniffing “slut” in “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” slated to open on Broadway in a couple of months. There was a shocker of a song by Adam Gwon that took us from the heights of new love, proposal, marriage and joy, to the depths of loss as this man who told her, “I’ll Be Here,” vanished in the World Trade Center but returned to whisper, “Move on, live.”
Powerful stuff for a concert of songs. But it’s the power that makes Audra McDonald different. She sings us new “story” songs and turns old ones into family sagas. She’s articulate, funny, sensitive, inventive and so talented we just want to touch her hand hoping some of it rubs off. She even lets us in, turning “I Could Have Danced All Night” into a sing-along.
Even though 1,000 cheered McDonald, there were too many who missed her. The next time you see this lady is coming to town, don’t be left banging down the door. Get inside, but beware: Your life will be turned inside out.
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