PROVO — One of the hottest theatre events this year in Utah is the concert series by 5-time Tony winner (and living Broadway legend) Audra McDonald. Famous for her starring performances in Ragtime, Carousel, and recently The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, McDonald was last seen in Utah at Hale Center Theater’s 110 in the Shade with future husband (and Utah native) Will Swenson.
McDonald is giving three concerts in Utah this week: two at Brigham Young University and one at Weber State University. We asked our UTBA members who were attending to give their reactions to the performance. Those responses are listed below in the order they were submitted. Check back often because more will be added as they arrive in our editor’s inbox.
Melissa Leilani Larson
The standing ovation, in my opinion, should be the supreme sign of an audience member’s enjoyment, reserved for performances that truly touch the viewer. As a theatre artist, I of course want to receive ovations, but I want to earn them. I want them to mean something. So I seldom give them; it takes something extremely special to bring me to my feet.
Tonight I gave two standing ovations, one within minutes of the other, and to the same person. I clapped and I cheered and I cried.
I sat in the center of row F and melted in my seat as Audra McDonald walked out on the stage of BYU’s de Jong Concert Hall. Winner of 5 Tony awards, 3 of which were earned before the age of 30, Audra is arguably the greatest talent of contemporary Broadway. She belongs in the company of Judy Garland and Julie Andrews, and this weekend she’s hanging out in Utah.
The thing about Audra McDonald is that she isn’t just a singer—she is a storyteller. Yes, she is an immaculate musician. But she never simply hits a note. She feels it, and she makes you feel it, too. She finds and inhabits the character singing each song, filling them with life from the first note to the last.
I’ll give an example. The song “I’ll Be Here” (from Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days) begins as a romantic comedy, but turns instantly into the most moving dramatization of 9/11 I’ve ever heard. Performing it, Audra simply sat on a stool and opened her soul. There were tears in her voice and on my cheeks. My heart broke, but in the best possible way.
What can I say? She brought me to my feet, and I can’t wait for it to happen again.
On Saturday night I had the privilege of witnessing the Weber State University concert of Audra McDonald. When watching her sing, it occurred to me that there are certainly many reasons why she is in a small, exclusive club of women who have earned 5 Tony awards. However, what struck me most was her ability to tell a story with each song. She would switch from fun to emotional with elegance and grace, and in a span of two to five minutes I felt the same way I might have during an entire Broadway show. Tears would spring to my eyes before I could even process the meaning of the lyrics, because of her intense emotion. She had the audience laughing and crying on cue, with all of us wishing that we could in fact be the in-laws she now talks about in Utah, and wondering how we could get ourselves connected to Will Swenson.
A while ago I heard someone compliment another singer by saying watching them sing was like watching an old, grand instrument brought to life, yet the instrument was merely the person and their vocal chords. I felt that Audra fit that description. When she sings, she puts her entire person into that song. Many of her numbers brought tears to her own eyes, which was thrilling to behold. She also shared with the audience the why behind many of the songs she chose, and the fact that she had such a broad range, and a personal tie to each and every song, was also thrilling. Besides musical theatre and classical standards, I also really enjoyed her support and focus on new talent, singing songs from people who are new to the musical theatre writing scene.
Saturday was an evening I will never forget. This type of performance is not only why I love and support the arts, but even more why I support local arts. I loved seeing the young people in the audience, with stars in their eyes, listening to stories of a young lady who practiced hard and made it to Julliard and beyond.