Skip to main content

REVIEW: There are no words for Audra McDonald at Roy Thomson Hall

int(100747)
iPhoto caption: Photo by Jag Gundu
/By / Nov 6, 2023
SHARE

Any critic tasked with reviewing Audra McDonald must confront language’s inadequacy. Adjectives like “brilliant” and “heart-stopping” confuse her with the swaths of lesser performers who’ve been described similarly, flattening the matter. Her greatness is so established, so obvious, that such declarations feel empty. And yet to avoid them is to risk understatement.

Her touring concert An Evening with Audra McDonald, which played at Roy Thomson Hall on November 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, blurs descriptive poles: the singer’s manner is laid-back though poised, the selections predictable yet profound, her voice controlled but free. McDonald has collaborated with conductor Andy Einhorn for over a decade, and their act glistens with polish.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a six-time Tony winner (the most of any actor), the concert includes many showtunes. Act One trends toward standards — “Summertime,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “I Could Have Danced All Night” — while Act Two gets a bit more contemporary, to the point that it features a song found on R&B singer Emily King’s TikTok.

Much of the show orbits notions of childhood. McDonald sings “Pure Imagination” because she used to love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, tells many a story about her four children, and invokes Kermit the Frog with a “Bein’ Green” cover. This exploration climaxes with a mash-up of “Carefully Taught” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and “Children Will Listen” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods, two numbers highlighting how young people are shaped by their environments.

That song pairing has a hidden biographical resonance: Hammerstein was Sondheim’s writing mentor, his own careful teacher. 

The program includes other subtle nods at the artistic lineage of American musical theatre. McDonald sings “Fable” from The Light in the Piazza — which, she points out, was written by Rodgers’ grandson, Adam Guettel. And a Bernstein medley (“Some Other Time” / “Somewhere”) follows a Sondheim one (“What Can You Lose?” / “Not A Day Goes By”), reminding us of the duo’s collaboration on West Side Story. This material is standard for a musical theatre concert, but it feels different in McDonald’s hands because she’s directly worked with many of these writers, making her part of the family. Especially in the case of Sondheim, her interpretations feel rooted in the man and his spirit (“We miss him terribly,” she says).

What gets me about McDonald is her phrasing. She’s performed most of this repertoire for several years, and her delivery is both sublime and mature. Whereas many musical theatre singers wander into vibrato haphazardly, spontaneously adding it halfway through a note, McDonald largely restricts such transitions to held-out vowels at the end of songs. Most other notes are either entirely straight, or entirely vibrato. This careful juxtaposition between (poppy) tension and (operatic) release gives McDonald’s storytelling its exhilarating texture.

An Evening with Audra McDonald includes a handful of songs from the singer’s most recent solo album, 2018’s Sing Happy. As the concert winds down, a thesis related to that title emerges: live in the moment. Love today. It’s not an original message; but with McDonald’s voice filling the air, it’s more achievable than ever.


An Evening with Audra McDonald played at Roy Thomson Hall on November 2. More information is available here.


Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Liam Donovan
WRITTEN BY

Liam Donovan

Liam is Intermission’s publishing and editorial assistant. Based in Toronto, his writing has appeared in Maisonneuve, This Magazine, NEXT Magazine, and more. He loves the original Super Mario game very much.

LEARN MORE

Comments

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


/
Production photo of The Caged Bird Sings at the Aga Khan Museum. iPhoto caption: Photo by Zeeshan Safdar.

REVIEW: With the help of a daring set, The Caged Bird Sings brings Rumi into the present day

Literal and metaphorical cages abound in this radical adaptation of Rumi’s Masnavi, produced by Modern Times Stage Company and presented in the Aga Khan Museum’s courtyard.

By Liam Donovan
iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.

REVIEW: Age Is a Feeling aches with tenderness and love

Age Is a Feeling is a warm hug for whoever might need it.

By Aisling Murphy
Production shots of the Stratford Festival shows reviewed below: Hedda Gabler, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet. iPhoto caption: Production shots by David Hou.

REVIEW: Straightforward concepts, stripped-down sets, and strong performances define Stratford’s approach to the canon this year

Throughout Stratford’s productions of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Hedda Gabler, moments of actorly playfulness jolt us into the here and now.

By Liam Donovan
stratford festival iPhoto caption: Production shots by David Hou.

REVIEW: Stratford boasts a flair for the dramatic in two terrific musicals and a spooky take on Shakespeare

All in, this was a very strong opening week for Stratford, but seriously, go see the musicals!

By Aisling Murphy
iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.

REVIEW: The Wrong Bashir is an ode to the hyphenated identities of Canada

Quibbles on the show's comedy aside, The Wrong Bashir will stay with me for a while as a successful ode to hyphenated identities across Canada. 

By Eleanor Yuneun Park
iPhoto caption: Photo of Come Home — The Legend of Daddy Hall by Cylla von Tiedemann.

REVIEW: The Legend of Daddy Hall feels like coming home

Home is not a place, it’s a feeling, and Come Home — The Legend of Daddy Hall feels like I came home. I was taken on a journey watching this play and came out honoured to be a witness to such an incredible story. I encourage you to do the same.

By Aisha Lesley Bentham