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Review: Audra McDonald with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

July 1, 2015

When I saw Audra McDonald in her career-making supporting performance in the Lincoln Center production of “Carousel” back in 1994,  I thought I was seeing a talent at the top of her game.

When I saw her again on Broadway in “Ragtime”—and then again when I saw her in the headed-for-Broadway “Master Class”—I thought the same thing, wondering how many different ways there could possibly be to show this woman's remarkable talents. Compelling. Stunning. Musically spot-on, she never lost connection to the humanity of the character she was playing.

Well, as evidenced by her growing shelf of Tony awards and by her performance June 30 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, McDonald’s talents remain as glorious as ever—her voice as rich, her persona as warm, and her selection of material as impeccable.

The set that the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience was privy to included a batch of Great American Songbook staples (including “It Might As Well Be Spring,” “Moon River,” “When Did I Fall in Love?,” “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” and “My Buddy”), a nod to some of the newer composers that she has been championing since her first album (including Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon), and some delightfully goofy lieder songs with lyrics lifted from Craig’s List.

Broadway tunes got their share of airtime. “Moments in the Woods” from “Into the Woods” showcased McDonald’s ability to dig quickly, deeply, and specifically into a character while “Go Back Home” from “The Scottsboro Boys” not only proved an understated-but-deeply-emotional highlight but also reminded audiences that the Kander and Ebb songbook is a rich one. McDonald also nailed the duo’s “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret.”

And as if enough musical magic hadn’t already occurred, an unexpected singalong to “I Could Have Dance All Night” sounded magnificent. Who knew Indy audiences had such vocal chops?

Obscurities such as the rapid fire “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” balanced the expected but appreciated familiarity of her “Over the Rainbow” encore, the latter proving particularly fitting given the recent Supreme Court decision and McDonald’s outspoken tweets about recent events in Indiana politics. She kept such matters to a minimum in this showcase, however, but took time to acknowledge after-the-fact that her rendition of “Summertime” was dedicated to recent church-bombing victims. Her between-song banter—whether about her daughter in the audience or her moving experience at New York shelter whose board she now sits on—was engaging and smart without ever keeping the audience too far from the next breathtaking vocal performance.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, supplemented by McDonald’s musical entourage, proved that a glorious evening could have been had even if the star hadn’t have made it to the stage. Kudos all around.

And come back soon. Please.

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