CD Review: SING HAPPY (Audra McDonald and the New York Philharmonic)

by Frank Arthur on June 13, 2018

in CD-DVD

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I had the privilege of seeing Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning performances in CarouselMaster Class, and Ragtime, but it was her turn as Clara in Passion at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival that proved McDonald is, as Stephen Sondheim maintains, “one of the glories of the American theater.” Not only is she a refined singer with a golden soprano voice of purity and control, but she makes every song a story unto its own. She exudes a warmth and humanity that is only matched by her tremendous vocal power and terrific acting chops. (Her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill won her a record-breaking sixth Tony Award.)

Her latest CD, Sing Happy, was recorded live at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic, featuring Gene Lewin on drums, Mark Vanderpoel on bass, Brian Hertz on piano; and her longtime music director Andy Einhorn conducting. And a happy recording it is. Unlike some of her other solo albums — which with mixed results triumphed newer composers — this is mostly a collection of Broadway’s songbook from the late ’50s through early ’70s, some ditties of which are from shows she appeared in: “Simple Little Things” from 110 in the Shade; “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music; and “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. There is some stodgy editing with applause and the arrangements can be a bit twee but those are minor quibbles. I saw her do the same set in Los Angeles, so I’m glad to report that most of her patter has been mercifully taken out for this 21-track release — not because she isn’t engaging: it’s just that the talk in between songs can become tiring after many listens while the tunes do not.

And what tunes they are! “Hurry It’s Lovely up Here,” an agreeable plea for plants to grow from On a Clear Day; “Vanilla Ice Cream,” in which a woman realizes she’s been wrong about a guy in She Loves Me (and we get a beautifully belted High C); and McDonald is truly a songbird with solo piano on “More I Cannot Wish You,” a father’s hope that his girl will one day fall in love from Guys and Dolls. There’s a plaintive wistfulness in the clever medley of “Children Will Listen” (Into the Woods) and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (South Pacific); a haunting yearning in “Never Will I Marry” (Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow); and some bluesy growling in “Cornet Man,” a rarely covered tune from Funny Girl that was not in the film version. And as a tribute to the powerful black female performers to come before her, there’s a stunning take of “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough,” which I don’t know of anyone covering since it was introduced by Leslie Uggams in Hallelujah, Baby!, written by Jule Styne with Comden & Green.

Beautiful, strong, fiercely passionate, and with a voice that will carry you away, she is what she is. McDonald’s Sing Happy will definitely make you happy.

Sing Happy
Audra McDonald and the New York Philharmonic
Decca Gold
21 tracks | 61:29
released June 1, 2018
available on iTunes and Amazon

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