The Bowl audience tapped their feet, sang out loud and enjoyed the artistry of singer/actress Audra McDonald Tuesday.
Even though my family comes from a humble background in Cuba, music and dance have always been a big passion for me since I was small. Growing up in Inglewood (the Wood), Calif. during the 1970s after arriving as an immigrant I had very little knowledge of American culture, but for some reason I gravitated to ballet and Broadway musicals as a teenager. Must have been the gay genes!
The ballet passion started with the performances by New York’s American Ballet Theatre (ABT) at the Shrine Auditorium during the golden age of the company. I was lucky to see iconic dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov (1974–1978), Alexander Godunov (1979–1982), Cynthia Gregory (1965–1991), Natalia Makarova (1970–1986), my paisano Fernando Bujones (1972–85, 1990s) as well as the current Artistic Director of ABT, Kevin McKenzie (1979–1991), among other greats.
On the other hand, the Broadway performances I attended early on were at the now-demolished Shubert Theater, which would host the traveling productions of the latest Broadway musicals including “A Chorus Line,” “Evita,” and “Dreamgirls” to name just a few.
So imagine how excited I was to discover the Broadway-meets-ballet program at the Hollywood Bowl titled American Classics with Audra McDonald. With a two-date run on Tuesday, Sept. 1 and Thursday, Sept. 3, the six-time Tony winner McDonald and ABT sure put the audience on their toes on Tuesday’s opening night (pun intended).
The evening’s host, conductor Bramwell Tovey, broke the ice with his British wit and a traditional interpretation of the “Overture to West Side Story” by the legendary composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was in fine form, but the percussion elements were weak during the Latin segments, which is needed if you want to feel that “mambo.”
Following a glowing introduction by Tovey, the beautiful and elegant Audra McDonald entered and began her set with “When Did I Fall in Love?” from the musical “Fiorello!” Sporting an elegant black gown with lace top, she segued into a potpourri of Broadway standards in her gorgeous, rich bluesy soprano voice and then turned around at the end to give the appreciative audience a quiz on the titles of the songs.
One of the highlights of this early portion of her program was the song “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” from the film Let’s Dance (1950) starring Betty Hutton and Fred Astaire. A very funny song done at lightning speed vocally, it showed the audience why McDonald is considered one of the greatest Broadway stars of her generation and an overall entertainer. She even got the L.A. Phil members to echo some of the humorous lines.
A gorgeous and heartfelt rendition of “Moon River” (composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer) got the audience to hum along and reminisce. This was followed by the iconic song “I Could Have Danced All Night” from the musical “My Fair Lady,” which with the encouragement of McDonald was belted out by just about everyone in the audience, including my friend, Steven Carson, who was my guest.
After sharing some intimate words with the audience about the troubled times we are facing, McDonald gave a very spiritual and sincere rendition of “Make Someone Happy,” which has become a type of mantra for her life. From the musical “Do Re Mi” (with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green), it proved to be another highlight from her performance.
To close the first part of the evening’s program the audience was treated to the song “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from the musical “The Sound of Music” (with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) and had been sung recently by McDonald in a live broadcast on NBC where she played the role of Mother Abbess.
After a standing ovation from practically every member of the audience, the gracious and obviously moved star said goodbye with probably the most famous musical number of all time, “Over The Rainbow,” originally from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz starring the late singer, actress and gay icon Judy Garland. McDonald contends that it was Garland’s death on June 22, 1969 that sparked the Stonewall Riots (June 28, 1969) in New York City that was the beginning of the modern-day GLBT rights movement.
After intermission came a visual, musical and historic treat as six members of American Ballet Theatre took on the 1944 production of the legendary ballet “Fancy Free” that was created by two of the most important artists of the 20th century, composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and choreographed by Jerome Robbins (1918-1998).
With original set design by the prolific Oliver Smith (1918-1994) and costumes by Kermit Love (1916- 2008), the man who designed and built many of the Muppets for Sesame Street, the audience was transported to NYC in the 1940s where three sailors were on shore leave and looking for trouble. The sailors were played by ABT male dancers Craig Salstein, Cory Stearns and the dynamic Marcelo Gomes, who gave strong and precise performances as they fought, literally, for the attention of the three ladies of the story. The female roles were danced sensually and with humor, first by the lovely Stella Abrera followed by the impeccable Gillian Murphy and finally the stunning Leann Underwood whose gorgeous leg extensions had the three sailors running after her at the end of the piece.
The music to this ballet by Bernstein is rooted in jazz and classical music with touches of abstraction that make it sound very modern even after 70 years. Robbins’ choreography, while not done en pointe by the females, has the elegance and technical requirements that classical ballet entails, but at the same time it has a humor and a very New York state of mind – to quote a famous Billy Joel song.
Big kudos to the L.A. Phil’s musicians for bringing out the details out of the score and conductor Bramwell Tovey for having to follow the dancers from behind the set, which is no easy task. Overall a very satisfying evening where many of us in the audience were able to tap our feet, sing out loud and enjoy the artistry of singer/actress Audra McDonald and the beauty in motion of the American Ballet Theatre dancers.