By the time the final song arrives in Audra McDonald’s powerhouse performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, the directive to “Get Happy” (by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, sung in medley with “Happy Days Are Here Again” by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen) feels a bit like cheeky sarcasm. After all, how could a person be anything but ecstatic after experiencing two whirlwind hours of McDonald at her best, lobbing soaring renditions of Broadway standards into the audience like the unbeatable champion of some musical theater home run derby. There are certainly worse ways to spend a Tuesday night, and few better.
In a two-night engagement in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, McDonald, with nothing to prove, nonetheless proves over and over why she has earned her place as one of the foremost stage stars of the modern era. Holding the record for the most performance-category Tony Awards (count ’em, six!), including an award in each of the four eligible categories, McDonald’s bio precedes her. For the uninitiated, she is a best bet for a night out. But for the devoted fans, who appeared to show up at the Kennedy Center en masse for this solo turn, McDonald is tantamount to musical theater mythology.
With the reliable backing of the National Symphony Orchestra, the full breadth of McDonald’s singular vocal talent is on display here. In numbers ranging from the jumpy (“Can’t Stop Talking” by Frank Loesser) and jazzy (“It Don’t Mean a Thing” by DC’s own Duke Ellington), to the tender (“Bein’ Green” by Joe Raposo) and triumphant (“Before the Parade Passes By” by Jerry Herman), McDonald practically swings through the full spectrum of both human emotion and the Great American Songbook. While some adorants may describe her immense talent with well-meaning descriptors like “effortless,” this performance is anything but: McDonald heaves her body and soul into every song, throwing her voice to the farthest corners of the Concert Hall, but maintaining careful control of the sound with the skillful precision of a scalpel-slinging surgeon.
One needn’t look further than her show-stopping performance of “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess (by George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward), for which she won her fifth Tony Award in 2012. Slowly lowering the microphone and stepping out of its range, McDonald opens her mouth to unleash the crystalline first notes of the song. Without straining, she sustains the song unamplified, harkening to a time when singers were trained to rely on the power of their own voices to reach the back row. Even in this raw form, she miraculously infuses the song with nuanced phrasing and befitting dynamics, never tapering along the way.
McDonald rightfully belongs to a pantheon of musical theater women (see the Ladies in Red from Sondheim! The Birthday Concert) whose next-level talent has earned continual acclaim. Like Chita Rivera — whom McDonald memorialized last night by dedicating a medley performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” (with Stephen Sondheim) and “Some Other Time” (with Betty Comdon and Adolph Green) to her — McDonald’s talent has endured and will endure through decades. For this definition of a trouper, live performance is obviously an essential component of her molecular composition. Even with successful forays into film (Rustin and Origin, recently) and television (including a recurring role alongside other Broadway favorites on HBO’s The Gilded Age), it seems that McDonald’s home is the stage. And, if the effusive audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is any indicator, that home is one “where there’s love overflowing,” as referenced in The Wiz’s “Home” (soulful, lovely in tribute to original cast member Hinton Battle).
But in McDonald, there lurks an unpredictability that is distinct from her peers and makes her all the more alluring. Aside from the extraordinary talent, technique, and presence, she is a veritable emotional chameleon. Gliding in and out of songs, she maneuvers seamlessly between the distinct characters for whom these songs were originally written and herself, never ceding a relentless genuineness regardless of who she’s portraying. Kicking off the evening with Herman’s “I Am What I Am,” she is both ebullient and defiant, as if to warn, “These songs are as much a part of me as I am of them.”
But that affinity for the unpredictable transcends simply the structure of the two-act performance, permeating through each number. McDonald possesses a clear mastery of craft and an intrinsic dramatic understanding that allow her to move freely within the music: adjusting tempos, riffing off the page, constantly pushing and pulling. Each momentary decision is so motivated by emotional truth that these flourishes feel at once surprising and inevitable. A lesser performer would fall apart attempting such feats. But McDonald is no such performer. She has the gift, plain and simple. And she damn well knows how to use it.
To her benefit, the audience is all the more engaged for it, be they her most devoted fans or the second-date couple who bought tickets on a lark (it is the Kennedy Center, after all). Regardless of whether she is introducing a new number (“I Love Today” by Kim Kalesti, so sweet) or succumbing to the pressures of singing more “popular” standards (like Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night,” jubilation, and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret,” fresh and bluesy), the audience unwittingly shifts toward the front of their seats in expectant anticipation of where she may be taking them.
It helps that she has the support of a nimble, savvy music director in Andy Einhorn. Under his guest baton, the NSO fades appropriately into the background on most numbers (even though sound balance issues in the Concert Hall occasionally relinquished McDonald’s voice to the musical force behind her), but teeters on the verge of underutilization. The single exception is Richard Rodgers’ “Carousel Waltz,” one of the composer’s finest works, which functions as both an overture and a showcase of the orchestra’s musical bravado. It is a transporting selection, effectively repositioning the audience in an era when show tunes and pop hits were one and the same, and transforming the Concert Hall, with its four tiers and a seating capacity that far outnumbers any of the 41 legitimate Broadway theaters, into something more akin to a cramped auditorium wedged on 45th St between 7th and 8th Avenues.
Experiencing such a performance in this living monument to the performing arts, one can’t help but wonder if (or, perhaps, when) McDonald will find herself in the President’s Box at a future Kennedy Center Honors. In a business where so few achieve the kind of professional longevity McDonald has achieved (with 13 Broadway credits across three decades under her belt), one can only hope that her contributions to the American musical theater will eventually be immortalized in such a way. But, thankfully, there is no indicator that she is stopping any time soon. Is it possible for a person to begin a career in their prime and never leave it? The folks at Spotify shouldn’t be surprised to see a spike in McDonald-related streams throughout the Washington area this week. Whenever McDonald rolls into town, or comes through a pair of headphones as clear as a whistle, one can’t help but think: happy days are here again.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes.
Audra McDonald plays a two-night engagement with the National Symphony Orchestra on January 30 and 31, 2024, in the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts Concert Hall, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.
The program is online here.