Audra McDonald, Leicester Square Theatre, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

If your knowledge of Audra McDonald is limited to her role as the opera singer-cum-wardrobe, Madame de Garderobe, in Disney’s recent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, you have so much more to learn.

McDonald has won six Tony Awards – more than any other actor – and is the only person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories (leading and featured performer in both plays and musicals). Later this year, she will make her West End debut in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, reprising her Tony-winning role as Billie Holiday.

This week, though, she is in London for a short series of conversational concert performances at the Leicester Square Theatre, hosted and accompanied by comic writer, performer and composer Seth Rudetsky. The combination of performance and Q&A sessions was used in the same venue in 2013, with Rudetsky interviewing another Broadway diva, Patti LuPone. It is a shame it has taken so long to revive the format, for Rudetsky is the perfect interviewer, gently prodding his subject into talking about areas where she can at least pretend she doesn’t really want to go, before reeling off anecdote after anecdote.

It helps that Rudetsky and McDonald have known each other for so long, he having accompanied her at her graduating year recital at New York’s Juilliard school. McDonald is not shy about criticising her alma mater – while noting that things have changed in recent years, she laments that her enrolment as an operatic singer afforded her no training in acting, dancing or any other discipline which could have benefited her intended career in musical theatre.

It is perhaps because of her operatic voice training that McDonald is often pigeonholed as a coloratura soprano. Certainly, it is that side of her performance abilities that she utilised in Beauty and the Beast, as well as on stage in Carousel and Porgy and Bess. And in her first evening of this short residence, her first musical numbers reflect that. But there is a depth and richness to her voice that also lends itself to more contemplative numbers, such as Jason Robert Brown’s Stars and the Moon, Adam Gwon’s I’ll Be Here or Moments in the Woods from Into the Woods.

There is also a fiercely comedic vein throughout the evening, from exchanging a series of spot-on impressions of Liza Minnelli with Rudetsky to the performance of Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder, setting some of the internet’s weirdest personal ads to music.

On this week-long visit to London, McDonald has brought her whole family, including husband Will Swenson, who has taken a week off from his Broadway role in Waitress and who pops up here to perform a rambunctious performance from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance before duetting with McDonald on You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.

The couple’s good relationship with each other and the affection they and Rudetsky share for each other is infectious. The entire concert feels far too short, the series over four evenings feels not nearly long enough. One can only hope that, once her West End role starts in June, Audra McDonald can find the time to perform similar events to this one – because there is not a theatregoer who should miss this.