Audra McDonald with Seth Rudetsky

Audra McDonald with Seth Rudetsky

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, Scottsdale, AZ, March 23, 2024

Reviewed by Lynn Timmons Edwards

Audra McDonald & Seth Rudetsky

When I am in awe, my mouth drops and I am on the verge of tears. That was my reaction to hearing Audra McDonald sing live at close range. Like most culturally literate people, we know her from her six Tony Award-winning Broadway roles, her live NBC television appearance as the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music, and from her film and TV credits, most recently on the HBO series The Gilded Age.

Sirius/XM On Broadway host and brilliant Broadway music director/pianist Seth Rudetsky has been bringing Broadway artists to the Scottsdale Center for many seasons in a series produced by Mark Cortale. The format is twofold. Rudetsky chooses numbers to present from a book of about 25 songs that the artist prepares. He sits stage left and asks questions, eliciting stories from their personal and professional lives along with as much Broadway gossip as he can get, and he interjects a little name dropping of his own.

McDonald was by far the biggest star to grace the series. She glided onto the stage looking more like a carefree thirty-something than her actual fifty-three-year-old, mother-of-four self. She mentioned being on the road for the better part of the past year, and she was confident, polished, and solid on every note and lyric. She was at home with Rudetsky’s questions, clearly having fun sharing stories of her upbringing in Fresno, California; her five years at Juilliard along with bits about her life as a working singer/actress, her two marriages, and the reality check of being a mom.

During the live broadcast of The Sound of Music she was texting her daughter Zoe who was telling her how well the show was going. After her big number in that production, “Climb Every Mountain,” which we heard as her pre-encore closer, she came off stage expecting a text of praise and instead read “Mommy, where are the dryer sheets? I want to do some laundry.” Needless to say, McDonald acts not like a diva but as a woman who knows what she wants to do, takes her work seriously, and can blow you out of the room with her voice. She talked about being unhappy at Juilliard and feeling trapped in the classical voice program when she and everyone else knew she wanted to do musical theater. But that training has served her well. She negotiates her soprano register with a unique power and range, and with an emotional attention to every lyric that is spellbinding.

Most opera singers struggle with the musical-theater repertory, but McDonald uses her breath and her voice to crawl inside the listener so that attention must be paid. She opened with “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles and followed it with my favorite in her repertoire, “Stars and Moon” (Jason Robert Brown). As a high schooler she sang in a jazz choir and won a vocal competition with what she now realizes was an inappropriate song for a 14-year-old, “Cornet Man” (Funny Girl).  She may be a soprano, but she sang it with a sultry jazz belt that inspired Rudetsky to new heights of piano performance.

She is at home with many genres. “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady was lyrical, and she encouraged the sopranos in the audience to sing along, which for me was great fun. In honor of Stephen Sondheim’s birthday which was the previous day (March 22) she sang a medley of “What Can You Lose?” and “Not a Day Goes By.” Later she included “Children Will Listen” in a beautiful mash-up with “Bein’ Green” (Joe Raposo) and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (Rodgers & Hammerstein). The songs from the different composers may have been written in different decades, but they were arranged in an arc that promoted love and tolerance.

McDonald and Rudetsky did not discuss her television or film roles or every Broadway show or Tony Award. But they did spend time on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and her tour-de-force performance as Billie Holiday. Winning that Tony made her the first woman to take home Tony Awards in all four eligible acting categories. She found the voice for Holiday through her memories of imitating her grandmother whom she called Nana and whose piano she has in her home today. She tackled Holiday’s classic “Crazy He Calls Me” by going back and forth between Holiday’s unique but damaged sound and her own glorious voice and showing her superb acting skills.

The cabaret was filled with Broadway classics, but she also offered a new song that she discovered on TikTok—“I Love Today” by Kim Kalesti. It is a lovely ballad written by a mother about spending a perfect day with her daughter. Rudetsky spoke of meeting a Scottsdale resident backstage named Syd who used to play concerts with Judy Garland, so he called for “Over the Rainbow” as a dedication to Syd. Sometimes a Rudetsky show is heavy on the conversation and goes off on tangents, but he and McDonald found a balance that allowed for many more songs than we usually hear in one of these evenings.  After a standing ovation and some additional discussion, the duo performed a double encore of the George & Ira Gershwin/Du Bose Heyward/Dorothy Heyward “Summertime” with McDonald off mic, showing her operatic skills. Then the two presented a dark, interesting arrangement of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret.” Rudetsky called it “creepy,” but I loved it. It had elements of Jacques Brel and a powerful Madama Butterfly ending. I could picture its original setting in a basement club in Germany full of sexually divergent characters. Bravo to the artists, the near capacity audience, and the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts for giving us a night to remember. Rudetsky will be back in Scottsdale in October with Sutton Foster.

Lynn Timmons Edwards

Lynn writes and performs themed cabaret shows based on the songs of the Great American Songbook throughout Arizona. She has had three short plays produced in the Theatre Artists Studio Festival of Summer Shorts and is working on a full length play, "Fairy," based on the life of Mary Russell Ferrell Colton, a founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona. In addition to writing and singing, Lynn plays bridge and tennis and enjoys traveling with her husband and artistic companion, Bob. Born in Ohio, Lynn is a graduate of Denison University (BA), Arizona State University (MPA) and has lived in Arizona since 1977.