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Audra McDonald enchants at CityRep Performance

Photo by Wendy Mutz / Mutz Photography
Audra McDonald.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Sitting squarely in the Midwest thousands of miles away from the bright lights of Broadway, Oklahoma rarely has the chance to house the legends of theater. Which is exactly what made Audra McDonald’s appearance in Oklahoma City Sunday night all the more substantial. A six-time Tony Award winner, McDonald’s performed a once-in-a-lifetime show to a packed house at the OCCC Visual and Performing Arts Center.

The concert, presented by the Oklahoma City Repertory Theater (CityRep), was dedicated to the songs in Broadway musicals that have always held a special place in McDonald’s heart. Whether they were songs she herself has performed (“Summertime”) or that were so famous she was basically forced to sing them (“I Could Have Danced All Night”), the performance served as a sort of greatest hits collection of some of Broadway’s most important tracks.

If one weren’t already aware that they were in the presence of a living legend Sunday night, the audience made sure to remind you. Filled with patrons both young and old, no one could hold in their glee when the 46-year old McDonald stepped on the stage. The sold-out crowd roared with applause, filling the theater with rapturous enthusiasm after every number during the 90-minute performance.

Accompanied onstage by her associate music director and pianist Brian Hertz, McDonald looked and sounded as stunningly gorgeous as ever, never once faltering or showing any signs of wear. Even when she wasn’t doing superb justice to numbers from classic musicals such as Porgy & Bess or The Sound of Music, McDonald’s luscious stage presence was enough to keep the audience’s attention.

The Julliard School-bred performer was dressed in a body-hugging black dress, looking the part of a Broadway starlet and chewing the scenery with her natural elegance. “This is my first time in Oklahoma, I’m in soprano-land!,” she joked in reference to our state’s theater natives Kelli O’Hara and Kristin Chenoweth. And while the performances of previous CityRep showcases Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters almost drowned in their own diva theatrics, McDonald’s presence was as warm as could be. It was hard to believe the cheery and kind-spirited McDonald is the greatest living theater actress alive, “the Meryl Streep of Broadway” as she’s often referred.

Starting with her lifelong love affair with musicals and tracing her journey towards stardom, McDonald started the night with “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello. Performing Rodgers & Harmmerstein’s  “It Might As Well Be Spring” and Irving Berlin’s“Moonshine Lullaby,” McDonald was game to not only deliver stellar vocal performances, but poke fun at herself with some tongue-in-cheek role-playing. And maybe I’m biased because “The Glamorous Life” was also my go-to audition song in high school, but you could hear the crowd gasp in awe at her rendition of the signature Stephen Sondheim number.

Recounting tales from her music education upbringing, going to auditions, and other milestones in her life, McDonald gave the evening a sense of camaraderie between herself and the audience. It’s riveting enough to see a star like McDonald onstage, let alone at a concert in Oklahoma City. But the fact that it was simply her and a pianist onstage gave the proceedings an especially intimate mood. Which especially helped to showcase her crack comedic timing, such as when she told the story of her rocky flight to the night’s performance from New Orleans: “It was pitch-black outside and the pilot said ‘Well you guys picked a really great day to fly,’ and I just thought dear God we’re going to die!”

Discussing her two children, a 16-year old and a 5-month old, McDonald said she was always looking for teaching moments in music. She book-ended each song with number with a story about why she chose to include it, either because she wanted to showcase an up-and-coming talent or it simply meant something to her. Her rendition of the lullaby “Baby Mine” from the animated film Dumbo was unexpected, but left the entire theater in tears.

But no matter how many perfect performances filled up the night, the ultimate highlight came when she told the story of her experiences with the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth in New York City. McDonald sits on the Board of Directors for the Covenant House and ultimately dedicated the next number, “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys, to the children there. The same can be said of her rendition of the relatively-unknown “I’ll Be Here” from Ordinary Days. The song is life-spanning number that details the courtship and romance of a couple, the untimely death of one of them, and learning to love again in the face of tragedy. You didn’t have to be familiar with the material to resonate with its sheer beauty and emotional power.

Finally ending the night with the standard “Over the Rainbow,” McDonald touched on the impact Judy Garland had on her as a performer and what this particular track meant to her: “Love is love is love is love. Go out and preach love, Oklahoma.” Even if you’ve heard countless versions of “Over the Rainbow” before, it did nothing to stop McDonald’s soaring soprano from forcing its way into your heart. Her entire performance was defined by this lack of pretension, with every note ringing true and cheeky smile impossible to resist.

Whether you entered a casual fan or theater obsessive, you left enchanted by the lady of the evening. McDonald didn’t simply put on a good show, but blow away the entire crowd and any level of expectations that they had. I’m sure college students in attendance are changing their majors to musical theater as you read this. With charm to spare and a voice that would put any modern starlet to shame, Mrs. McDonald not only put on a wonderful show, but a transcendent spectacle worthy of the Great White Way.

EDITOR'S NOTE: There was a strict "no photography" rule in place, which is why Red Dirt Report had no photos of Audra McDonald from this particular performance.

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Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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