Audra returns home to the Saroyan in a commanding performance
Editor’s note: Because I’m out of the country, I asked a friend and veteran journalist to review Audra’s show for me. Thanks, Doug!
By Doug Hoagland
Can you be a show business legend at only 47?
If you’re Audra McDonald, you can – and she is.
McDonald thrilled a sold-out audience at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre on May 26 with a soaring voice and an easy presence that made her both stunning and accessible.
For 90 minutes, with no breaks, McDonald performed classic and new numbers from the songbook of American musicals with the Fresno Philharmonic. She was alternately poignant, funny, self-deprecating, dramatic and commanding – always commanding.
McDonald, of course, grew up in Fresno and conquered Broadway as the winner of a record-breaking six Tony awards. The Saroyan audience showed its love with a standing ovation when she first appeared on stage. She looked genuinely touched and then delivered a rousing “Sing Happy” by Kander and Ebb.
Classics from other Broadway legends followed. McDonald performed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” with the freshness of a cool breeze, Gershwin’s “Summertime” with soul-stirring clarity, and Sondheim’s “Being Alive” with powerful yearning.
One of the concert’s extraordinary moments came when McDonald intertwined “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods” with “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific.” The message was clear: No one is born a racist. They learn it from others.
McDonald’s concert also put the spotlight on newer composers who have brought fresh, relevant voices to the American songbook. Her eyes glistened as she sang “I’ll Be Here” from “Ordinary Days” by composer and lyricist Adam Gwon. The song tells of a young New York husband killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Tears trickled down her face as she finished.
McDonald told the audience she’s lived in New York City for the last 30 years but was in Fresno on 9/11 to visit her late father, Stan. She held her then-infant daughter close that day and ultimately asked how she could move forward in a world forever changed. The audience learned McDonald’s answer as she sang “Make Someone Happy.”
She concluded the concert with a majestic performance of “Climb Every Mountain,” and after another standing ovation brought her back for an encore, she quieted the theater with a tender, restrained “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Throughout the concert, McDonald displayed her celebrated ability to mine the deepest meaning of lyrics and find their golden center. The effect was, perhaps, best captured in the body language of a woman who sat near me. Several times, the woman leaned forward in her seat as if she couldn’t wait to drink in that voice and all it had to offer.
She wasn’t alone in her eagerness.
Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He worked at The Fresno Bee and other Valley newspapers for 40 years. He saw Audra McDonald perform with Good Company Players and at Roosevelt School of the Arts when she was growing up in Fresno.