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Concert review: Audra McDonald’s little gems urge wise choices

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 5:01 a.m. MDT

Audra McDonald in a photo from her recent CD release, Audra McDonald in a photo from her recent CD release, "Go Back Home." (Autumn de Wilde)

“AUDRA McDONALD IN CONCERT,” Bravo! Professional Performing Arts Series, BYU’s Harris Fine Arts Center, Sept. 5-6

PROVO — Audra McDonald doesn’t relive former glories.

When performing in concert, the five-time Tony winner steers clear of showstopping hits from her Broadway shows “Carousel,” “Ragtime,” “Marie Christine,” “110 in the Shade” and “Porgy and Bess.” Away from Broadway, she’s played lead roles in “Annie,” “Passion,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Wonderful Town” and “Dreamgirls,” and there’s not a single selection from any of those highly popular musicals.

“I like to find little gems off the beaten path,” she announces from the deJong Concert Hall stage.

Audra McDonald will be performing in concerts at BYU and Weber State in September. (Autumn de Wilde) Audra McDonald will be performing in concerts at BYU and Weber State in September. (Autumn de Wilde)

When she performs, these little gems sparkle and shine more brightly than nugget-sized jewels at Tiffany & Co.

An Audra McDonald concert is intensely thrilling and exquisitely beautiful. As soon as she began her first song, Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Brock’s joyful “When Did I Fall in Love?” BYU audiences knew they were in for something very, very special. And over the evening, we each fell in love.

With her second choice of the 18-song concert, Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon,” the thread that connected the evening’s selections began to be established: look beyond wealth and fame to make wise choices. Eschew “a fortune in the bank” and “meeting stars at the parties” in exchange for “hope to bring out all the life inside you and the strength that will help you grow.”

Audra McDonald will be performing in concerts at BYU and Weber State in September. (Autumn de Wilde) Audra McDonald will be performing in concerts at BYU and Weber State in September. (Autumn de Wilde)

“Let go of the rest,” she recommended between songs. “Here’s what is important.”

Stephen Sondheim’s “Moments in the Woods” from “Into the Woods,” which the master composer personally recommended she sing, also established the importance of avoiding initially attractive romantic entanglements for stability and long-lasting happiness.

And fulfillment is within reach, but “First You Dream,” from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Steel Pier”: “Dream about incredible things/ Then you look/ and suddenly you have wings/ You can fly/ But first you dream.”

McDonald’s easy repartee was woven with warmth, humor and love of family. The few personal insights enlivened the performance and revealed a glimpse of the woman who made the songs work so magically.

After singing the heartbreaking “I’ll Be Here,” a song that evokes the 9/11 event without referencing it by name, McDonald explained that during news reports on the day of the tragedy, she tightly caressed her infant daughter and wasn’t able to release her from her arms.

Her father admonished her to confront her fears. “If you’re afraid, that’s why you do it,” he told her. McDonald had previously not felt capable of playing the piano on stage (“but we did pay for all those lessons,” her father reminded), but she then sang “Migratory V,” from Adam Guettel’s “Myths and Hymns” song cycle, while accompanying herself on the piano.

And there’s the gorgeous voice. McDonald is blessed with a lush, emotive, incredibly clear soprano that forcefully expresses an astonishing joy. It’s an unrivaled quality that demonstrates why she is the most highly decorated contemporary Broadway artist.

With the other legendary singing performers she mentioned in song introductions — Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Barbara Harris, Ethel Merman and Julie Andrews — McDonald shares the ability to sensitively and effortlessly combine emotion, intelligence and impressive skill. She has an indomitable power to elevate her songs heavenward.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company