Leicester Square Theatre, London – until 16 April 2017
There’s only a handful of musical theatre royalty whose reputation so precedes them, particularly from New York to London, that they can guarantee to put a bum on every seat every night. Bette Midler, of course. Glenn Close. Patti LuPone to some extent but the reverent affection Audra McDonald is accorded has to be seen to be believed.
I think I must have ‘just’ missed her on Broadway as Sarah in Ragtime, but I’ve also missed out on the other appearances that earned her the Tony Award record for six gongs, both for straight plays and book musicals. But she’s never performed in either on this side of the pond. She made a memorable impact in Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun but what really brings her to London is reprising the Billie Holliday role in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, after a postponement because she and husband Will Swenson were expecting a baby.
So these Leicester Square Theatre concerts are a warm-up routine for a woman who needs no warming, certainly not in the presence of a fond and willing audience and her long-time friend, Juilliard School audition pianist and musical theatre uber-geek Seth Rudetsky as onstage host.
Rudetsky feels more relaxed than when he presented Patti LuPone on this same stage four years ago and their conversation flows easily as McDonald displays a wholly un-diva-ish character, chatting as with friends about motherhood, whether TV and movie stars should cherry-pick theatre projects, the backstage tension in the filming of the ‘live’ Sound of Music in which as Mother Superior she’d just sung ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ and – desperate for news from the outside world as to how it was being received – got a text from her teenage daughter asking where she kept the fabric softener.
She’s joky, and open, and delightful company – and when she sings, although that Juilliard operatic training diction is ever present and the resonance of her chest cavity empowers even the subtlest line, she exhibits a truly diverse range.
The set is eclectic, not to say random, and may change from night to night, but the highlights were not just great set pieces like ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ or ‘Summertime’, nor the Sondheim nor the Amanda McBroom – but the unexpected gems like ‘I’ll Be Here’, a clever and tender love song fractured by the events of 9/11 and penned by recent winner of the Fred Ebb prize Adam Gwon for his musical Ordinary Days, and the hilarious spoof Lieder based on adverts from Craigslist.