Sold-out audience revels in Audra’s salute to 50th anniversary of Good Company Players, where it all started for her


Audra McDonald moved seamlessly from poignant to humorous to vulnerable in a concert Sunday that showcased masterful storytelling with soaring vocals.

Dan Pessano, managing director of Good Company Players, introduced her as a “gift to the world.” It was one Fresno icon speaking to another. 

Pictured above: Audra McDonald’s image figured prominently in the Warnors Theatre lobby. Photo: Doug Hoagland/The Munro Review

Playing to a sold-out crowd at Warnors Theatre, six-time Tony winner McDonald walked onto the stage to a standing ovation. She hugged Pessano (who had received his own standing ovation) and delivered a buoyant and fierce “I Am What I Am” from the Broadway show “La Cage aux Folles.”

It set the tone for a 90-minute show that featured numbers from the Great American Songbook to underscore McDonald’s themes of acceptance, love and gratitude as she celebrated Good Company Players’ 50th anniversary. McDonald, of course, got her start as a child – then teenage – performer in GCP productions at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. After the rousing “I Am What I Am,” she delivered a conversational greeting eloquent in its simplicity: “Hi, Fresno. I don’t know what to say to you. I am overwhelmed.” She then paid tribute to Good Company and the role it played in her life: “Almost everything I am when it comes to being a performer was built, discovered and nurtured at GCP.”



Pessano watched from the wings of the historic theater and was often in tears, he said after the show. “You see very few performers who walk out, open their arms up and allow an entire audience in . . .” Pessano said McDonald expertly showed “the potency and power in music to make a statement without preaching.” Case in point: She intertwined two Broadway classics: “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods” with “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific.” McDonald was achingly tender with the medley and her message was clear: Haters aren’t born. They learn to hate from others. “We need that message more than ever,” McDonald told the audience. “That’s why I sing that song.”

She spoke candidly about the world as it is but also offered a reason for hope. “It’s a crazy time – the world seems like it’s spinning off its axis. Where’s the humanity? We need to get it back.” That dose of reality served as an introduction to what McDonald said she tries to do with her time and talent: “Make Someone Happy.” There seemed a tangible yearning as she sang. Such performances are backed by an authentic person, Pessano said: “It’s who she is that is far more amazing than all the things she’s done.”

With an unforced ease, McDonald allowed Sunday’s audience to be – as Pessano put it – “a personal friend.” 

• She was self deprecating, sharing that the four children in her family have been known to be bored at her concerts.

 • She showed her spirited nature – inviting the audience to join in a “I Could Have Danced All Night” sing-a-long before reclaiming the spotlight with a closing high note that must have ricocheted off the wrought iron chandelier on the Warnor’s high ceiling. “You all sounded lovely, and I got a little competitive,” McDonald said, laughing.

• She spoke of her extended family, sharing they had enjoyed an “emotional, spirited and loud” family reunion on her trip to Fresno. After singing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” McDonald paid tribute to her paternal grandmother, Evelyn McDonald. “That song was for Nana.”

McDonald’s haunting “Summertime” showcased her storytelling skill and ability to so fully embody lyrics that you almost feel you’re hearing them for the first time. “Every word is laced with heart and soul, and it’s not just hitting the high notes,” said Armen Bacon, a long-time friend. Bacon worked as marketing director at GCP in the 1980s, hired McDonald as a teenage babysitter (“although I rarely came home to an immaculate house, my kids adored her”), and has seen most of her performances on Broadway. McDonald is an artist who weaves every available nuance of body language – a hand gesture, pursed lips, eyes tightly closed – to create a singular moment with each song, Bacon said. “She’s singing a story of life. She’s had her ups and downs, and there is something so beautiful because she’s so real.”

McDonald closed the show with a heartfelt bouquet to the audience. “It’s been so lovely being home.” Then she urged: “Seize your joy. Shout hallelujah. We have hard days but also glorious days. We need to be grateful for that and shout hallelujah.” McDonald and her musical director, Andy Einhorn – who served as her pianist – then offered a relaxed encore with a medley of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy.”

McDonald had come home to share her extraordinary talent in celebrating a milestone for Good Company Players and Dan Pessano. A happy day, indeed.

Doug Hoagland is a freelance writer in Fresno. He spent 40 years working at Valley papers, including 30 years at The Fresno Bee. The first play he saw was a 1968 production of “Show Boat” at McLane High School.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong byline.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (2)

  • Karan Johnson

    It was a wonderful concert. I remember the little girl with the big voice…she was in the preshow for Pajama Game, and sang a wonderful version of “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
    Happy Birthday, GCP!

  • Dianne Kady

    What a glorious concert, and what a glorious voice! Hearing Audra McDonald sing again brought back 50 years of GCP memories. I was at the Hilton Hotel with friends when a young Dan Pessano (and Roger Rocha) appeared in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” I was there when GCP moved into the old “5 and dime” store in the Tower District, and later when a young Audra wowed us in the Junior Company. I watched as Audra McDonald took Broadway by storm and made Fresno proud. Years ago, when she came home to do a concert, I was thrilled to be in the audience. She just gets better with time, like a fine wine. Fresno is truly lucky to have so many related musical entertainment treasures. Along with GCP, we have Dan, Roger,and decades of cast members, back stage workers, and supportive parents, plus the historic Tower Theater and Tower District, and the magical Warnors Theater restored to it’s former glory. And I don’t want to forget the equally historic organ hiding under the Warnors floor. Isn’t it time to bring the organ back to life and let it shine in it’s own concert? I’d be first in line to buy tickets. What do you think are the possibilities??


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