Audra McDonald’s Triumphant Return Reminds Us of What We’ve Been Missing

United StatesUnited States Audra McDonald at Carnegie Hall: Audra McDonald (vocalist), Ted Sperling (conductor), Andy Einhorn (piano), Mark Vanderpoel (bass), Gene Lewin (drums), Matt Beck (guitar), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 22.10.2011 (BH)

Cole Porter: “I Happen to Like New York,” from The New Yorkers (arr. Andy Einhorn, orch. Bruce Coughlin)
Jason Robert Brown: “Stars and the Moon,” from Songs for a New World (arr. Jason Robert Brown and Eric Stern)
Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II: “It Might as Well Be Spring,” from State Fair (orch. Bruce Pomahac)
Burton Lane / Alan Jay Lerner: “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (orch. Robert Russell Bennett)
Gus Kahn / Walter Donaldson: “My Buddy” (arr. Andy Einhorn, orch. Bruce Coughlin)
Terry Shand / Jim Eaton: I Double Dare You (arr. Ted Sperling, orch. Michael Gibson)
Sherman Edwards: “He Plays the Violin,” from 1776 (orch. Eddie Sauter)
Irving Berlin: “Moonshine Lullaby,” from Annie Get Your Gun (arr. Andy Einhorn)
Stephen Sondheim: “Moments in the Woods,” from Into the Woods (orch. Jonathan Tunick)
George Gershwin / Ira Gershwin: “He Loves and She Loves,” from Funny Face (arr. Kevin Kuhn)
John Kander / Fred Ebb: “First You Dream,” from Steel Pier (orch. Michael Gibson)
Adam Guettel: “Migratory V,” from Saturn Returns
Jerry Bock / Sheldon Harnick: “Dear Friend,” from She Loves Me (orch. Don Walker and Frank Matosich Jr.)
Frederick Loewe / Alan Jay Lerner: “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady  (orch. Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang)
Frank Loesser: “Warm All Over,” from The Most Happy Fella (arr. Andy Einhorn, orch. Bruce Coughlin)
Gabriel Kahane: Three Selections from Craigslistlieder (arr. Andy Einhorn)
Judd Woldin / Robert Brittan: “Whose Little Angry Man are You?” from Raisin (arr. Andy Einhorn, orch. Bruce Coughlin)
Frank Churchill / Oliver Wallace: “Baby Mine,” from Dumbo (arr. Andy Einhorn, orch. Bruce Coughlin)
John Kander / Fred Ebb: “Go Back Home,” from The Scottsboro Boys (orch. Larry Hochman and Bruce Coughlin)
Adam Gwon: “I’ll Be Here,” from Ordinary Days (orch. David Dabbon)
Jule Styne / Betty Comden and Adolph Green: “Make Someone Happy,” from Do Re Mi (arr. Andy Einhorn, orch. Bruce Coughlin)
Harold Arlen / E. Y. “Yip” Harburg: “Ain’t it De Truth,” from Jamaica (arr. Ted Sperling, orch. Bruce Coughlin)

From left: Mark Vanderpoel (bass), Andy Einhorn (piano), Audra McDonald, Gene Lewin (drums), Ted Sperling (conductor). Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Not that I have anything against television, but in the case of Audra McDonald, it appears that she has been surreptitiously hijacked for the last few years, playing in the hit series, Private Practice. (Sorry, haven’t seen a single episode, so can’t comment.) And not that artists shouldn’t explore other talents – or even admit to the allure of making a little money – but this incandescent Carnegie Hall evening reminded everyone in the room that we’ve been missing something: her voice.

And it’s not just the instrument itself that has put her at the pinnacle of her craft; with the skill of an archer, she finds material that is exactly right for her – songs that always seem fresh, as if the composers had her in mind from the very beginning. Her opener, Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York,” has been done by Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Short and Donna Murphy, among many other legends, but I doubt any of them has relished the phrase, “even the stink of it” with McDonald’s glee. A version of Gus Kahn’s “My Buddy” rivaled those by Streisand and dozens of others who have been seduced by its tenderness, and late in the evening she unfurled an effortless spin on Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night,” plunging into it with the excitement of a downhill ski run.

But one of her biggest assets is her interest in younger composers, such as Adam Guettel (“Migratory V” from Saturn Returns), Adam Gwon (“I’ll be Here,” from Ordinary Days, which probably caused the most lumps in the throats of the evening), and three hilarities from Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder. Using actual personal ads culled from Craigslist, Kahane’s witty settings only underscore their inherent humor and sadness. McDonald’s spry take on “Neurotic and Lonely” was funny and heartbreaking…but mostly funny, especially when the word “neurotic” becomes as obsessive as its interpreter.

Later she confronted the recent dust-up with Stephen Sondheim head-on, after he had weighed in – negatively – on the upcoming Porgy and Bess revival in which McDonald will star. After reporting that she had asked him for some suggestions, the gracious result, from Into the Woods, was “Moments in the Woods,” showing off her almost nonchalant narrative skill.

Throughout the evening her patter was extraordinarily confident, whether encouraging audience members to sing along with the help of her superb, modest conductor, Ted Sperling, or asking them, “What was that from?” (These fans knew their stuff; correct answers were plentiful.) And there was a subtext to the evening: marriage equality (for gays and lesbians), which she has long championed. “He Loves and She Loves” by the Gershwin’s was transformed into a quietly affecting anthem for the cause. Even a momentary memory lapse (“He Plays the Violin” from 1776) didn’t faze her, rescued by a (fake) frightened look into the audience: “It’s Carnegie Hall, girl, get it together!”

Her musicians – longtime collaborators augmented by an orchestra of almost 30 – offered luxurious support. They never called undue attention to themselves, in sprightly arrangements and orchestrations by Sperling, Andy Einhorn (her pianist), Bruce Coughlin and others. By the end, with a wry reading of “Ain’t it De Truth” (from Jamaica) from the golden portfolio of Lena Horne, the slight frenzy in the audience couldn’t be contained. I hope she returns soon.

Bruce Hodges