I am going to start off by saying that this review will be written in a rather unconventional way. I usually try to remove myself from the performance and the artist when critiquing, try to paint a picture of the audience and the atmosphere of the place — I try to connect the performance to something that everyone can relate to. I saw the incredible Audra McDonald perform on the eve of my 19th birthday and the performance easily broke through my journalistic shell, completely penetrating into my body and touching my heart in a way that no other performance has, so it would be unfair for me to even try and write an objective review.
As I walked into Hill Auditorium to see the six-time Tony Award winning singer and actress, I was not prepared to be as affected by the performance as I was. For one, the set was comprised of a single stool and her band. It was peculiar seeing such a simple and bare-minimum set in such a large, elaborate space. Mark Vanderpoel took the bass tenderly in his hands, Gene Lewinsat at the drums and Andy Einhorn — an incredible and well-established music director — asserted himself at the piano, all of them dressed in fine evening wear.
Hill Auditorium was packed, with no empty seats in sight. It seemed impossible that one person could fill such a massive space with her voice and presence. Tension rose in the eager audience waiting for the famed McDonald to come out, and when she did, her presence automatically lit the stage, and the audience came to life. Applause roared from the audience, before she even got a chance to sing a song or tell a story.
McDonald’s voice in every song was incredible; it was almost maddening. Her sweet vibrato echoed through Hill Auditorium with such power. She made every single piece her own, putting her own spin on it. Pieces that I have heard a great deal, like “Vanilla Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me,” or “I Could’ve Danced all Night” from “My Fair Lady” — extremely popular songs found in the arsenals of many sopranos — were captured in a different and intriguing way. Even though I am very familiar with the plots surrounding most of the songs, McDonald sung them in a way where it felt as if I was listening to them for the first time. Through placing emphasis on different lyrics than usual and putting a new spin on the vocal tone used to sing the piece, I took away something new from the songs in her set.
Her set included the borderline classical song, “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” which she sang magnificently without a microphone, in traditional classical style. She sang two of my personal favorites from her repertoire, “Stars and the Moon” from “Songs for a New World” and “I Won’t Mind” from “The Other Franklin.” These songs are difficult to sing (I know from personal experience) because they are wordy and vocally challenging at the same time. These challenges seemed to have not phased McDonald, as she sang both songs as if they were an extension of her normal speaking voice.
What was most impressive was McDonald’s incredible ability to tell stories. This is what set her performance apart from any another that I have seen. McDonald shared anecdotes of her life and anecdotes of memories she shared with the lives of others. She uses the power of her voice and her talent for storytelling through words and songs to touch the hearts of audiences everywhere, whether it be telling her own stories or telling the stories of others. What had really caused me to enter a state of raw emotion is how much of myself I saw in her. It was almost like watching the future that I want for myself play out in front of my eyes. Even more nerve-wracking, she took me through this journey, reminiscing and reflecting on all the things I have accomplished throughout my life in one of the most effective mediums: song. While McDonald’s storytelling was incredible, what truly completed the story was the use of song.
Yet, I was haunted by the fact that every story that McDonald told hit so close to home. It became impossible for me to remain objective and composed. There were so many parallels between her life and mine that it felt unnerving at times to listen to them.
I grew up in New York City, and went to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where I studied vocal music. I knew too well the stories that McDonald told about being in a performing arts school. There were moments that we shared, such as a quirky story about her singing an age-inappropriate jazz song for a competition when she was 14-years-old, which was told in the perspective of a sexually frustrated housewife.
It was fitting, with it being my 19th birthday, as I looked back on my time when I first started at a performing arts high school, and how I would just sing for fun. I sang because that is what I loved to do, and I did not care about whether a song was age appropriate or if anyone approved of my venture into the arts because it’s what I loved and knew. As I grew older, it seemed as if more and more obstacles got in the way of this dream. I grew up on Broadway, whether it was going to the theater and watching shows or watching YouTube videos of Broadway stars, including Audra McDonald. I remember fully believing that Broadway was where I was headed and destined for. As I grew more and continued on my performing career in high school to now, I started to lose sight of that dream as more and more obstacles seemed to get in my way. Whether it was being a woman of color having to work harder than my white counterparts for a lead in a show, it occasionally felt like my performance was ever good enough.
McDonald reminded me, as a young performer, of why I started singing in the first place. As I sat and watched her perform, seemingly without inhibitions, it got me thinking as to where along the way I lost my sentiment and will to sing. It reminded me that I sing for myself and that people want to hear others sing. Of course, it would be extremely difficult — almost impossible, in my mind, to reach the level of fluency that McDonald has reached in her career through hard work and a gifted voice, but seeing McDonald as a human with real stories to tell and a real, raw voice was enough to get me motivated to try and reach for that level.
The most intriguing thing is that during this performance, it felt as if I was having this personal connection and conversation with her and so did others around me. I had never seen so many people get teary-eyed at a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Hill Auditorium did not seem so big anymore. It was as if I was back in kindergarten again, arranged in a circle and listening to stories told by my teacher attentively, sitting at the edge of my seat. It was as if I was sitting with my mother, an English teacher, and listening to her tell me stories in both song and book. I felt at home and nostalgic.
What I took away from Audra McDonald’s performance was a message of hope and love. She had used her voice to empower the audience, and she expressed her message of hope and love for the generations to come, saying that as young performers and young people in general, she has faith in us to fix what has been botched by previous generations. She urged those in power and in a higher position to nurture the coming generations, singing the fitting song “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods.” There was message of love to be found for all audience members. The concert was more than just a journey through the American Songbook, it was a beautiful performance that has taught me so much about who I am and who I want to become.