Some stars hit it big and never give their hometowns a second glance in the rear-view mirror. Audra McDonald, the four-time Tony winner and custodian of a voice that makes the knees of cranky Broadway theater critics weak and trembling, is not one of those stars. On Friday night at the Warnors Theatre, in her first Fresno concert in five years, she lavished affection on her hometown. From waxing rhapsodic about the simple act of driving down Maroa Avenue to repeated shout-outs for her beloved Good Company Players, she infused the event with an endearing, heartfelt sense of Fresno boosterism.
“I love coming back home,” she told the appreciative audience. “I will always be proud to be a Fresno girl.”
In a generous two and a half hour concert, McDonald delivered a program of Broadway songs that ran the gamut from the 1920s oldie “My Buddy” to Gabriel Kahane’s wacky “art song cycle” excerpt relying on lyrics from Craigslist. The evening wasn’t just about her gorgeous voice, which ranged from bell-like clarity in a sing-along version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” to husky sadness in George Gershwin’s “He Loves and She Loves.” McDonald has always been about finding the passion and humanity in her vocals. Sometimes she does the expected musical-theater thing by finding the character and story in a song. (And she does that “thing” so well it can be mesmerizing.) At other, rarer times, her songs become less about character and more about sheer, abstract energy, as if her voice is a big boulder picking up momentum as it tumbles down a hill. You can’t help but get caught up in the whoosh and power of it all.
Update: Much more on the jump.
Bee photo / Craig Kohlruss
The scene: A very full Warnors, not quite sold out — there were some empty seats on the side aisles — stuffed with an obviously partisan Audra crowd. For Fresno, it was a pretty formal affair: a number of sparkling tops for the ladies, a healthy smattering of sportsjackets and suits for the men.
The opening song: Before she opened her mouth, the audience gave her a near-standing ovation. She graciously motioned for folks to sit down, saying, “Let me actually DO something first.” She opened with the lush and gorgeous “When Did I Fall In Love” from the musical “Fiorello,” and with that first number signaled the sweeping emotional range of the evening.
The Fresno connection: The entire concert was a bonding experience between hometown gal and her city, with McDonald peppering the program with local references, jokes and periodic go-Fresno sentiments. She told the audience how proud she is of Fresno’s culture, its diversity and the talents of its performers, taking special care to lavish some attention on the Fresno Grand Opera orchestra that joined her on stage. (It’s as if she administered a giant hypodermic needle chock full of self-confidence in the city’s arm.)
The humor: McDonald cracked early on that she felt as if she knew everybody in the audience. At one point, after taking a sip of tea, she noted: “I have three different tea bags in my cup — it’s going to be wild.” And she even regaled the audience with a brassy Ethel Merman impression.
The oddest moment: At one point there was a sharp pop in the Warnors sound system that almost — for a hair-raising second — sounded like a gunshot. It was a little scary. McDonald looked momentarily startled, then recovered, pointed to the tea and said, “I told you it was going to be wild.”
The homage to Good Company Players: McDonald waxed nostalgic about her days in GCP’s Junior Company, at one point calling out to longtime friend Joel Abels (now artistic director of StageWorks Fresno) in the audience to ask when they sang “My Buddy” together. Near the end of the show, in a particularly touching moment, she asked if Dan Pessano (founder and managing director of GCP) was in the crowd — he replied with a sturdy “Present!” — and noted that “Papa Bear” was in the audience. Musing a moment, she added that when she considers her background and training — all the way through Juilliard in New York City — “All the fundamental things I learned, I learned from Dan.”
The “Porgy and Bess” update: Alas, she couldn’t sing any songs from her newest project, the upcoming Broadway musical that opens December in New York, because her character of Bess doesn’t actually sing any solos in the show, she said. But she did make note of the controversy surrounding the project, including the very public letter that composer Stephen Sondheim sent to the New York Times complaining about changes made to the show. Still, McDonald noted, she’s on good terms with “Steve,” as she called him. He even suggested she sing his “On the Steps of the Palace” from “Into the Woods” for this concert tour.
The voice: Ah, that voice. How to describe it? The first measures of the classic “Moon River” were so tender and graceful it was if she’d mixed the opening lyrics with butter and heated them on the stove. And yet there’s such power and passion in her voice — the “whoosh” I’ve already tried to document — that she is able to unleash with the slightest notice. It’s this dexterity, this ability to conquer the extremes and smooth them into such an elegance and grace, that makes her so riveting to me. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give is that the very first moment I hear a note from McDonald, I know it’s her — and not anyone else in the world.
Most emotional moment: Without announcing her next song, McDonald took a seat at the piano to play and sing Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V,’.an introspective piece about the wide open sky. Afterward, she explained that she’s always wanted to overcome the fear of playing the piano in public. Her father, the noted Fresno educator Stan McDonald, used to encourage her to do that, telling her she needed to overcome that fear. He died four years ago in one of the solo experimental planes he loved to fly. “So that was for my dad,” she said.
Coming home: There were so many moments of majesty on Friday night, but my favorite was “Go Back Home” from the Broadway musical “The Scottsboro Boys.” In that wrenching song, which is sung by a character unjustly imprisoned far from home, the lyrics go like this:
Maybe some day I’ll get lucky
Someone’s gonna say
Take the train and go back home.
I’d say we were the lucky ones, Audra.