Singer Audra McDonald was originally scheduled to appear with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in December but the concert had to be cancelled because of a scheduling conflict. The concert was rescheduled for March but she was forced to bow out again because she fell ill. Fortunately for her Indy fans, McDonald was finally able to perform with the ISO Tuesday at the Hilbert Circle Theater and did so in a manner that those in attendance would no doubt agree was simply unforgettable.
The multiple Tony and Grammy award winning McDonald, who is as comfortable on television, film and in the recording studio as she in on an opera, concert or Broadway stage, is one of the entertainment world’s most highly regarded performers if not one of its most popular. It was clear from her Tuesday performance why she is held in such high esteem.
Joining the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, led by her music director Andy Einhorn, was McDonald’s band consisting of Brian Hertz on piano, Mark Vanderpool on bass and Gene Lewin on drums.
McDonald, dressed in a floor length black lace gown, showed sophistication, but her witty sense of humor, revealed during frequent informative banter with an audience that clearly worshipped her, portrayed her as a celebrity who doesn’t take herself too seriously and one who values authenticity.
The program chosen by the pitch-perfect McDonald for her 90 minute program, without intermission, showcased her distinctive soprano voice with its dazzling power and range. It consisted of show tunes, standards from the American Songbook and others.
“When Did I Fall In Love?,” from “Fiorello,” the musical, was McDonald’s opening selection. After performing the next song, which was “It Might As Well Be Spring,” she quizzed the audience about who wrote it after which someone from the audience yelled out “Rodgers and Hammerstein” which, indeed, was accurate. She did the same with “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” which, as it turns out, according to the Julliard trained McDonald, was written by Lerner and Lane (and not Lowe), and was sung on Broadway by Barbara Harris as opposed to Barbara Streisand who starred in the movie version of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
Such were McDonald’s impeccable song choices that nearly every single one resonated with this writer as it did for a thrilled audience that responded loudly and enthusiastically after each. Although difficult to single out her very best song, there were clearly some highlights. They included “My Buddy,” which she said she was inspired to add to her repertoire, by an elderly veteran. Another which could almost be called a definitive version was “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” which she sang in a 2012 Broadway revival of the classic Gershwin musical. Her rendition was made even more special by her dedication of the song to the nine slain African-American victims of the recent Charleston, S.C. church shooting spree.
One of the most memorable parts of the evening occurred when McDonald encouraged audience members to sing along with her during “I Could Have Dance All Night,” from “My Fair Lady.” It didn’t take much cajoling on her part, because it sounded like the majority of the crowd joined right in. Encouraging the sopranos present to belt out the song’s high note near its conclusion, she was very gracious afterwards when she spoke directly to a singer in the front row who she complimented for what McDonald determined was her mezzo soprano voice. Finding out that the audience member was a voice teacher, she told her “you need to sing.”
McDonald turned in her most dynamic delivery when she sang “Maybe This Time,” from the film version of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret”—so much so that she received a spontaneous standing ovation and deafening cheers at its conclusion.
Prior to singing “Make Someone Happy,” McDonald once again shared the reason she chose that particular song for her repertoire. She explained that like many other Americans who were similarly traumatized by 9/11, she searched for meaning and found it in the lyrics of the song which describes how she chooses to live her life.
Another high moment of inspiration occurred when McDonald closed the concert with “Climb Every Mountain,” the iconic anthem she sang as the Mother Superior in the 2013 NBC live production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” Once again, she was awarded with a sustained standing ovation and several curtain calls.
Eventually McDonald returned to the stage, to perform “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as her encore song, which she sang in tribute to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. It is a cause for which she has been an avid supporter and activist.
In light of recent events related to the South Carolina killings, resulting in positive dialogue about racism and the Supreme Court decision resulting in celebration across the country, McDonald’s concert was especially gratifying for her acknowledgment of them through her music. She demonstrated that not only is she is an artist of the highest caliber who gives 110% but also one who has the courage and conviction to use her celebrity as a platform for positive change.
For tickets and information about the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra 2015-2016 season, call (317) 635-4300 or visit indianapolissymphony.org.