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Audra McDonald slips into L.A. to sing and stump for PBS

January 15, 2013|By Christopher Smith
  • Audra McDonald performs at PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" session at the Television Critics Assn. Winter Press Tour in Pasadena.
Audra McDonald performs at PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center"… (Rahoul Ghose / PBS )

Cabaret fanatics – and you know who you are – invariably suffer a persistent worry: What if there is some amazing live gig out there I don’t know about?

Well, Monday night your worst nightmare came and went -- unless you were one of some 200 people in Pasadena for an Audra McDonald set.

Admittedly, this was a cloistered event, arranged for TV critics and press members in town to preview PBS shows for the network’s spring lineup. McDonald is hosting “Live From Lincoln Center” this season. Rather than a standard press briefing, the Tony winner, with pianist Brian Hertz in tow, delivered a sparkling mini-set, though only organized Wednesday.

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McDonald’s seven-song performance was familiar to those who have seen her live in recent years. The renderings were invariably top notch, even though Jason Robert Brown’s lovely “Stars and the Moon” needed a start-over after she stopped a few bars in and apologized for a cold, saying, “I had a sinus moment.”

There was no noticeable effect on what followed, however, with the full McDonald range on display, shifting from nuanced to titanic in a single rendition of the Jule Styne/Comden and Green war horse “Make Someone Happy.”

A bit more astonishing was her breakneck run through Frank Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking About Him.” The song, as performed in the 1950 movie “Let’s Dance,” runs 3:14 as motor-mouthed by Betty Hutton -- with Fred Astaire briefly popping in. McDonald nailed it in less than two minutes. Even she seemed a bit shocked at the pace: “I’ve never sung that song before on antihistamines.”

(At a Q&A session after the performance McDonald addressed her fondness for the late, great Hutton: “She was a very talented, singer, dancer and actress, but she was also a goof. I feel like she didn’t have to sell who she was down the road to become a star. She was able to hold on to her essence, and that inspires me greatly. I feel like we knew her soul.”)

Another highlight was the Gershwins' 1927 “He Loves and She Loves,” which McDonald introduced with the funny if familiar intro of “this is from George and his lovely wife Ira…,” stopping the ensuing laughter with a self-deprecating “no, no, no.” McDonald has made this number into her theme song for her support of gender marriage equality – her twitter handle is @AudraEqualityMc – and she delivered it in heartfelt style.

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McDonald’s appearance presaged news of yet another appearance she will be making. As part of “Live From Lincoln Center” this season, she is performing a gala in New York that PBS will air on May 24. Song choices aren’t set yet, and McDonald appeared to be a bit sheepish at her song selection process.

“I wish there were a more scientific way of explaining how I go about picking songs,” she said, almost apologetically. “It’s really a gut reaction that I have to the material immediately, like with a ballad, I just respond and that’s basically it.”

This is one of six additional “Live From Lincoln Center” performances newly announced for the season. Among the highlights:

--A Kander and Ebb salute on Feb. 15. Among the featured singers will be husband and wife Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, with appearances by Joel Grey and Chita Rivera.

--A promising show from Kristin Chenoweth, ambitiously titled – and enthusiastically punctuated -- “The Dames of Broadway … All of ‘Em!!!” This takes place on March 24.

--A New York Philharmonic performance of “Carousel” with Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn in the lead roles. This will air on April 26.

Beyond her Lincoln Center role and gig, McDonald also offered a bit of news. She said she will begin recording a new album the second week of February. She was coy about song choices but did note that on Sunday she had heard and gone gaga over a couple of songs by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, known for their song “Taylor the Latte Boy,” which Chenoweth often sings.

One sad note: no mention made of what – or when – McDonald’s next Broadway appearance will be.

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