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Audra McDonald: Sing Happy 

CD Button New York Philharmonic, Einhorn. No texts. Decca B0028495-02

Recordings McDonald Cover 1118
Critics Choice Button 1015

AUDRA MCDONALD begins this collection of Broadway tunes, a live capture of her May 2018 solo concert with the New York Philharmonic, with “I Am What I Am,” that anthem of self-actualization from La Cage aux Folles. It is an assertion of herself as, in the words of the song, “her own special creation” (confirmed by her record six Tony Awards). At the same time, her delivery is intriguingly self-effacing, as if even she isn’t quite sure how to explain her astonishing abilities. Her voice is spectacular, authoritative and expressive, from her molten magma chest voice to her thrilling, shining soprano.

The selections are unified by her desire to do better in the world, by herself and others, as exemplified in the title track, which traces an arc from ingenuous hopefulness to urgency. Similarly, the earnest imprecation of Jule Styne’s “Make Someone Happy” offers quiet wisdom in the turnaround—“and you will be happy too.” Adam Guettel’s mercurial earworm “March is a Windy Month” eases in like a lamb and roars out like a lion as it counsels the hearer to “be a weathervane” in order to survive life’s buffeting winds. McDonald’s medley of “Children Will Listen” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” is sensitive and straightforward, reflecting an understanding that insistence only undermines such warnings. Her “Summertime” drips with the weight of the heat and the responsibility of protecting a child.

One of the most striking entries is “Being Good isn’t Good Enough,” originated by Leslie Uggams in Styne’s Hallelujah, Baby!, which McDonald dedicates to the female African–American singers who paved her way. When she sings, “When I fly, I must fly extra high,” McDonald articulates this painful truth with fervor and determination. Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry” is chilling and beautiful, while “Chain of Love,” from Claibe Richardson’s Grass Harp, is ennobled by McDonald’s sense of wonder. Here, as elsewhere, conductor Andy Einhorn and the New York Philharmonic are right there with McDonald, swelling and swooping with vigor and delight. McDonald’s smoldering, throaty growl is perfect for “Cornet Man,” from Funny Girl, peeling the paint off the wall in just the right sultry way. Sondheim’s “Being Alive” thrills with a steely belt/mix, but in “Simple Little Things,” from Schmidt and Jones’s 110 in the Shade, she pares back the emotion, letting Lizzie’s yearning emerge from her sweetness. 

While it’s mildly entertaining to hear McDonald turn an F-bomb into a cadenza in Kate Miller-Heidke’s “Facebook Song,” the novelty number is neither clever nor well-crafted. I also wasn’t sold on “Hurry It’s Lovely Up Here,” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which McDonald takes the oddball Daisy Gamble across the line from quirky into manic, although her lead-in, “It Might as Well Be Spring,” is charming. She closes with contrasting benedictions—the inspirational anthem “Climb Every Mountain” and the tender, poetic gem “More I Cannot Wish You,” so often forgotten among the flashier songs from Guys and Dolls. With power and passion, humility and humanity, McDonald proves once again her singular ability to expose her authentic self in order to envelop her audience in a sense of warmth and well-being. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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