The Celebrity Series of Boston opened its 73rd season at Symphony Hall on Sunday night with a coup, presenting Audra McDonald in concert on the very day that The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess concluded its run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Starring as Bess in the pre-Broadway production, Ms. McDonald fulfilled her obligation to the start of a 20-city concert tour scheduled before she committed to the musical. For those who were fortunate enough to see her brilliant performance as the downtrodden Bess, it was all the more stunning to watch this beautiful, smiling woman stride confidently across the stage in the role of Audra McDonald, singer.
Asking the musical question "When Did I Fall in Love?" from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Fiorello, McDonald immediately displayed her ability to inhabit the person in the song and build to a dramatic conclusion, exuding the love expressed in the lyrics. If the audience had been polled, I think everyone in the hall would know the exact moment they fell in love with Audra - the moment she opened her mouth in song. Her banter in-between the music was comfortable and relaxed, growing more organic with a few well-placed ad libs as the program continued.
Her set list featured some songs that she has been doing, in her words, "forever," such as Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon," which she manages to imbue with a bright-eyed, fresh quality, and "Bill" from Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Introducing the latter, she told people who've heard the story before to block their ears as she related in a self-deprecating manner how she had embarrassed herself when she sang it to honor Bill Cosby.
At least two thirds of her selections came from Broadway musicals and were composed by some of the giants of the great American songbook. Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, and Kander and Ebb were among the group of renowned composers/lyricists who McDonald interpreted with equal elan. She championed the latter pair's 2010 show The Scottsboro Boys which she felt was mistreated on Broadway due to its minstrel show-style, and sang the touching, beautifully melodic "Go Back Home." She may have drummed up some business for the December opening of the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever with her joyful rendition of "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here" (Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner).
When she recently encountered a homeless man singing an old tune in front of Chipotle ("Chipotle is one of my favorite places - Disneyland, Chipotle, Paris!") in Harvard Square, McDonald recounted learning "My Buddy" at the age of ten and inserted it back into her repertoire. She followed that with another chestnut from the 1920's featured on her "Happy Songs" cd, "I Double Dare You," delivered with a sly, come hither look and a fun uptick of the tempo, kept apace by Andy Einhorn's ragtime piano accompaniment. And speaking of fast-paced, her breath control on Loesser's "Can't Stop Talking" is nothing short of amazing. After she made it through, she shared the secret of her feat, but regretted that it may have been "way too much information."
McDonald's favorite role is that of mother to her ten-year old daughter Zoe Madeline, and she dedicated a pair of heartfelt lullabies that she was offering to an audience for the first time, "Whose Little Angry Man Are You?" from Raisin and "Baby Mine" from the Disney film Dumbo. Although she eschewed any selections from Porgy & Bess, she chose a Gershwin tune that she has been singing in honor of marriage equality (McDonald sits on the advisory board of the advocacy organization Broadway Impact), "He Loves and She Loves," an apt anthem for the cause that achieved several layers of heartbreak in her rendition.