By Tracy Antol
An evening with Audra McDonald reminds you why you love musical theater. Her performance last week at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for Performing Arts is precisely the kind of show we need right now: a wonderful escape into the soprano beauty of some of the world’s best composers—Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin were all there along with contemporary composers.
Most cabaret-style performances happen at the Broward Center for Performing Arts Center’s Amaturo Theater. But Audra can fill a room, and that she did. We had the pleasure of seeing her perform in the Au-Rene Theater, which will house next season’s Broadway Series that includes the much-anticipated Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. In spite of the venue’s massive size (2,658 seats), she made the audience feel like we were part of an incredible yet intimate performance. When she’s not knocking your socks off with that voice, she’s making you laugh and sometimes get a little “verklempt” with personal stories.
While enjoying a pre-show cocktail, my guest and I unbelievably (especially in Wilton Manors, one of South Florida’s most gay-friendly cities) happened upon a patron not familiar with Audra’s work. Yes—in my mind, we’re on a first-name basis. We quickly provided a rundown of her esteemed resume, which includes six Tony Awards (three before the age of 28) and the only person to win across four acting categories. Not the first woman. Not the first African American. The first person. Period.
Simply staged and accompanied by bass, piano, drums, microphone and a stool, Audra opened with “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello!. In addition to that silky soprano, she shared lots of theater-centric trivia, including the mostly forgotten fact that Fiorello! tied with The Sound of Music in 1960 for Best Musical at the 14th Annual Tony Awards. She also nudged at current political times, mentioning Irving Berlin: “You know him,” she said. “The immigrant who wrote ‘God Bless America,’ yes?” Her rendition of “Moonshine Lullaby” was divine.
Audra’s set was more than Broadway standards, also showcasing music that she loves, music that touches her soul, and composers that she’s championed throughout her career. We laughed and cried throughout the evening, at one point jumping to our feet and applauding gleefully for a cheeky song from Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke titled “Are You F*cking Kidding Me?” It was glorious fun, which then led into a sing-a-long of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” When the house lights went up, an ecstatic audience member jumped to his feet, threw open his arms and joined in enthusiastically. Audra loved it. We all loved it.
At the same time, Audra found a way to bridge the gap between musical theater and cultural/political awareness. I had never closely examined the lyrics from South Pacific’s “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” and Into the Woods’ “Children Will Listen,” which she performed as a medley.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Careful the things you say… children will listen.
At the end of the show, Audra was gracious in her appreciation for spending an evening with her. She gently reminded us all, regardless of political leaning, to remember our humanity. Extolled with a great sense of sadness, she then sighed and said, “Find your purpose.” For Audra, that purpose is defined in Jules Styne’s “Make Someone Happy.” I can confidently say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Selected dates where to see Audra McDonald this summer (Click here for full schedule):
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
Coming next season to Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Broadway Concert Series:
Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, January 13, 2019
Faith Prince, February 10, 2019
Jeremy Jordan, March 6, 2019
John Lloyd Young, March 20, 2019