Audra McDonald at Leicester Square Theatre, WC2
Bill Westmoreland

Consider this an appetiser. A Broadway superstar who is rarely seen in London, Audra McDonald returns to the West End this summer to play Billie Holiday in the musical play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. (Yes, McDonald really is capable of squeezing her classically trained voice down to those idiosyncratic proportions.)
But here for one day only, in the down-at-heel setting of a basement in grubby old Leicester Square, the American was simply being herself. And what a revelation she was. For all the acclaim her solo recordings have received, there has always been a chilly perfectionism to her vocals. For those of us who prefer our singers to be conversational rather than operatic, projecting character rather than vibrato, it has been a question of admiring her talent from afar rather than falling under its spell.
In this recital, however, sheer force of personality made all the difference. Vivacious and witty, droll and wickedly self-deprecating, she conquered the room within seconds. Most of the audience, inevitably, was made up of die-hard fans alert to every one of her musical theatre in-jokes, but McDonald’s utterly natural demeanour would have been enough to win over any neutral. Who could resist joining in her mischievous singalong on I Could Have Danced All Night?
True, that voice, sleek and powerful, was still occasionally overbearing in these intimate surroundings. You couldn’t help uttering a sigh of relief when she put the microphone to one side and launched into Summertime, injecting an almost unbearable level of pathos into every phrase.
If that song was very much from the standard end of the repertoire, McDonald and her immaculate pianist and musical director Andy Einhorn roamed into the undergrowth too. A rarely heard Frank Loesser tongue-twister, Can’t Stop Talking About Him, was a highlight; so too was the yearning Go Back Home, borrowed fromThe Scottsboro Boys. On a much better-known Kander and Ebb number, Maybe This Time, McDonald’s timbre grew darker and more affecting by the second.
A 9/11 song by the newcomer Adam Gwon didn’t quite avoid slipping into West Village mawkishness, but elsewhere, whenever McDonald seemed on the verge of shedding a tear there was no sense of artifice. This was a glimpse of the real woman, close-up and personal.

Clive Davis, The Times London
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