The bliss that is Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald is just so darn normal – not that outrageous beauty and talent are normal. But the point is, she could be a raging diva if she so chose. And maybe she is offstage (though I doubt it), but onstage, she’s funny, self-deprecating and comfortable, just as you’d expect of a girl from Fresno.

McDonald was back in the Bay Area Sunday afternoon for a concert at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus as part of the Cal Performances season. McDonald has been something of a regular visitor to Berkeley, and she never disappoints.

Sunday’s was a concert that almost didn’t happen. Flying into SFO from Eugene, Ore., McDonald encountered a baggage snafu. In the Bay Area for only a few hours – song, slam, thank you, ma’am – before she had to return to L.A. to resume filming of the ABC series “Private Practice,” McDonald found that her luggage had been checked all the way through to L.A. And the really bad news was that all the sheet music for her Berkeley concert was in those bags.

Oh, well. She and pianist Dan Lipton joked that this concert could be called “Songs that We Could Find the Sheet Music For,” or something like that.

If anyone in the packed audience was worried that four-time Tony Award-winner McDonald would offer a less-than-stellar show, they were soon calmed by several things: a) McDonald’s svelte and sexy figure poured into a full-length, low-cut, summery red gown and b) from the first number, the sexy, bass-heavy “When Lola Sings,” a specialty number written for her by Michael John LaChiusa, one of the new-guard Broadway composers she champions.

Just as she was launching into her second number, McDonald halted the proceedings – could it be a diva moment? She said, “Sorry, it’s just one of those days,” and she leaned down and picked up a roll of duct tape a stagehand had left on the stage, which was thrown into the wings.

Messy details taken care of, McDonald and her four-piece band got down to business with a lovely medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair and Lerner and Lane’s “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. With her glorious soprano mixing otherworldly purity with your average, everyday shimmering beauty, McDonald delivers what might be considered show tune heaven.

Curiously, McDonald did not pay much attention to songs from her most recent album, “Build a Bridge” (on Nonesuch Records). She sang only one song from that contemporary collection, Adam Guettel’s “Dividing Day” from his Tony Award-winning The Light in the Piazza, which was a powerhouse dramatic aria in McDonald’s hands. This isn’t a complaint, it’s just that the album is so good that McDonald might have thrown a few more selections into her recital (then again, maybe that sheet music was in L.A.).

Absent a wealth of new material, the audience had to “suffer” through some McDonald standards such as Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and Moon,” an anti-capitalist story song that still packs a wallop, Jay Leonhart’s jazzy-funny “Beat My Dog,” the lustrous ballad “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello and Frank Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” from the Fred Astaire movie Let’s Dance.

Some of the 90-minute concert’s most intriguing numbers came from McDonald’s Carnegie Hall concert in which she sang songs that for one reason or another scared her. Among those songs were “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me,
Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” from the movie version of A Little Night Music and “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, performed beautifully with acoustic guitar (played by Brian Pardo).

Among the more dramatic moments were LaChiusa’s take on anger as part of a series of songs McDonald commissioned from her friends dealing with the seven deadly sins and the truly heartbreaking “I Won’t Mind,” a ballad of spinsterhood by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler and Libby Saines. McDonald’s version of “Bill” from Show Boat is usually a highlight, but McDonald diffuses the beauty of the song by putting it in a comic context. She chose to sing the song at an event honoring Bill Cosby, but the Bill in the song is just an ordinary guy and it turned out to be completely the wrong song to sing. So every lyric in the song that trumpets Bill’s lack of anything extraordinary gets an audience laugh because of the Cosby connection, and the song becomes something other than the lyrical beauty it is.

After a rousing audience sing-along to “I Could Have Danced All Night,” McDonald blended two Sondheim songs, “What Can You Lose?” from the movie Dick Tracy and “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along, then capped the show with an encore of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, performed without a microphone opposite Pardo’s acoustic guitar.

The only drawback to McDonald’s show was that it ended too soon. Where’s that cranked-up Judy Garland spirit of singing them all and staying all night? Oh, yeah. McDonald is the normal one with a real job and a 6-year-old daughter. We’ll just have to be grateful for what we get.

Here’s McDonald in concert (from her PBS “Build a Bridge” show) singing “Stars and Moon” with composer Jason Robert Brown at the piano:

Show tunes and fireworks

Every year around the Fourth of July, I like to celebrate something entirely American: the musical.

I’m a little late this year, but it’s my patriotic duty. So here, better late than never, are some show tune suggestions to get you through the summer.

Of course the original cast album of the moment is Spring Awakening (Decca Broadway). The Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater score, performed by the most appealing cast on Broadway, calls out for frequent spins and rewards careful listening.

Almost as appealing, but in an entirely different way, is Curtains (Broadway Angel), the John Kander and Fred Ebb (with help from Rupert Holmes) show that has turned into a reliable hit on Broadway. The score by Kander and the late Ebb is pure, old-fashioned Broadway, with a few of the duo’s famed vamps thrown in for good measure.

The emotional highlight is Jason Danieley’s “I Miss the Music,” which is, in some ways, Kander’s musical memorial to his late writing partner.

Stars David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk are completely charming, and the disc is highly enjoyable — a classic show music experience. And for theater fans, there are abundant inside jokes (especially on Monk’s “It’s a Business) and a new theater anthem, a la “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in the rousing “Show People.”

The CD from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of 110 in the Shade (PS Classics) is worth owning for one reason: Audra McDonald. She elevates this 1964 Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones score to fine art. Just listen to her extraordinary performance — both acting and singing — on “Love, Don’t Turn Away,” “Raunchy” and “Old Maid.”

An unusal occurrence in this day and age, Grey Gardens received cast albums for both its off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. The Broadway album (distinguished by the green cover with star Christine Ebersole wearing a hat and peering around a hand mirror) from PS Classics is the one to own. It’s a more polished version of the score, and the performances (especially from Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, both Tony winners for this show) are even richer. It’s sad that the musical is closing so soon after winning Tonys, but at least the performances are preserved here.

I’ve reviewed the revival CD of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company in this space before, but I have to amend that review. After seeing the show, I fell in love with the CD, especially the performance by Raul Esparza, which I had disparaged after just listening to the disc.

Esparza was amazing onstage, and the disc from Nonesuch/PS Classics captures every bit of warmth and flawed humanity he displays in person.

Finally, we have a disc from one of the season’s major flops. High Fidelity (Ghostlight Records) never should have been a musical, and this disc demonstrates exactly why. Nick Hornby’s story about popular music snobs who work in a record store is full of very strong opinions about what makes music good and what makes it suck. The kind of music delivered here by composer Tom Kitt is exactly the kind of music that the story’s characters would make fun of. Amanda Green’s lyrics are actually pretty clever, but they’re mired in mild-to-murky pop that obscures their charms.

Two more discs to check out: Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women and Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men, both from Playbill Records and Masterworks Broadway. Hardcore show tune enthusiasts will already have most of the cuts on these discs, but they’re excellent surveys of musical theater and don’t have all the usual suspects (for instance, there’s no Andrew Lloyd Webber), and all the cuts are from original cast albums originally released on Columbia or RCA (a benefit of the Sony/BMG merger).

Tony red carpet, etc.

(all photos Associated Press)

“Musical theater rocks,” so said Duncan Sheik with a sly smile and a twinkle in his award-drunk eyes during Sunday’s Tony Awards.

Here’s Sheik on the red carpet before the event.

That’s the smile of someone who knows he’s going to win two Tonys (for best score and orchestration for Spring Awakening.

Another gorgeous red carpet arrival was best actess in a musical nominee Audra McDonald (110 in the Shade), who would not go on to win her fifth Tony.

But she would go on to electrify the audience (in Radio City Music Hall and at home) with the number “Raunchy” alongside co-star (and fellow nominee) John Cullum.

Returning to the red carpet, here’s the lovely Laura Bell Bundy, nominee for best actress in a musical for her role as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. To no one’s surprise, Bundy did not win, and Blonde failed to win in any category.

Looking like the Broadway royalty she is, Angela Lansbury, a best actress in a play nominee for Deuce, arrives. That’s Harry Connick Jr.’s daughter in the rear looking at Lansbury adoringly (“Daddy! It’s the voice of Mrs. Potts!). Lansbury lost to an ecstatic Julie White for The Little Dog Laughed, but she was a gracious ad hoc host.

Cutest married couple award on the red carpet goes to Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs. Neither was nominated but they should have received an award for looking so good.

I am thrilled that David Hyde Pierce, by all accounts a marvelous guy, was the surprise winner for best actor in a musical (for Curtains), but I was a little disappointed for Raul Esparza, who is electrifying as Bobby in the John Doyle revival of Company (which won best musical revival). On the red carpet he was clearly amused by the whole shebang.

Esparza’s performance of “Being Alive” during the awards was just a taste of how good he is in this show.

Another cutest couple award goes to a non-couple: presenters Cynthia Nixon and Felicity Huffman, who should definitely find a project to work on together.

Speaking of couples, hard to resist including a snap of Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. In Hollywood that’s called a baby bump. In New York, it’s called pregnancy.

In the realm of manufactured couples, here are the reality show castees Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, who will be starring on Broadway in the much-needed revival of Grease.

Tony party planning

OK, people, time to start planning those Tony Award viewing parties for Sunday, June 10 on CBS.

We’ve got to get those dismal ratings up, so if you’re having people over, make sure they’re still setting their TiVos (and VCRs if you’re archaic) to record the telecast. If you’re a Nielsen family, do some creative figuring and say you watched the Tonys on all five of your TVs.

The show’s organizers have begun talking about what we’ll be seeing.

Audra McDonald will sing “Raunchy” from 110 in the Shade, for which she is nominated in the best actress in a musical category.

Christine Ebersole will sing “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” which happens to be the best song in Grey Gardens, for which Ebersole is competing with McDonald in the best actress category.

The cast of Curtains, featuring David Hyde Pearce, will peform “Show People” and the adorable cast of Spring Awakening (so I’m biased — sue me) will perform a medley from the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater score. The cast of Mary Poppins will perform — probably the TV-ready “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The revival of A Chorus Line will likely trot out “One” again (we’ve seen that baby everywhere, from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to “The View”), and Raul Esparza will probably sing “Being Alive” from the revival of Company.

Fantasia, a recent replacement in the hit The Color Purple, is also slated to perform.

There won’t be a host (sorry, Nathan Lane) this year, but the list of presenters is impressive and includes Harry Connick Jr., Claire Danes, Neil Patrick Harris, Anne Heche, Marg Helgenberger, Felicity Huffman, Eddie Izzard, Jane Krakowski, Angela Lansbury, Robert Sean Leonard, Cynthia Nixon, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Plummer, Liev Schreiber, John Turturro, Usher, Vanessa Williams, Rainn Wilson and the cast of Jersey Boys.

I’m so excited

Things I’m excited about at the moment:

– The new Chorus Line cast recording (stay tuned for more on that one), which came out last week.

– Two off-Broadway musicals making their way to Broadway: Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens. The good folks at have posted a world-premiere video from Spring Awakening, a musical by Steven Sater and popster Duncan Sheik (I’m a big fan — interviewed him on his tour bus earlier this year). Watch the video for “The Bitch of Living” here.
This is the first I’ve heard of the score, and it sounds neither like High Fidelity nor Legally Blonde. It sounds like, well, Duncan Sheik, and that’s always good in my books. And the video is actually sort of funny in a Dead Poets Society-meets-‘N Sync -meets-Rock ‘n’ Roll High School sort of way. Very exciting.
On his blog, Sheik says he’s hoping for an early December release for the cast album.

As for Grey Gardens, I’ve only heard the cast album, but Act 2 sounds especially promising, and Christine Ebersole sounds better than ever. If you haven’t seen the documentary that inspired the musical, go rent it right now.

Audra McDonald’s “Live from Lincoln Center” concert last weekend on PBS. Like an idiot, I missed McDonald’s two-night stand at Bimbo’s in San Francisco. As she did at her SF gig, the luminous McDonald sang songs from her new CD, “Build a Bridge” (read my review here) as well as some musical theater chestnuts. My favorite track from the CD (and her most passionate performance in concert) is Laura Nyro’s “Tom Cat Goodbye.” My only disappointment with the show was that she didn’t sing Rufus Wainwright’s “Damned Ladies.”
Hard to complain too much when you consider the songs she did sing: “It Might As Well Be Spring,” “Hey Buds Below,” “When Did I Fall in Love?” and an “Edelweiss” to melt the hardest of hearts.