Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Seth Rudetsky Series Starring Audra McDonald
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Educating Rita and Holmes and Watson

Audra McDonald
Photo Courtesy of Audra McDonald
Six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald was in town last weekend for the Seth Rudetsky concert series at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Center. This is the third time McDonald has performed with Rudetsky at Scottsdale Arts, previously appearing together in 2017 and in 2019, when she was joined by her husband Will Swenson. This fun series features a gifted Broadway performer with Seth Rudetsky as the host and accompanist. McDonald and Rudetsky have known each other for over 30 years and their familiarity and comfort with each other provided many insightful candid moments and personal stories from McDonald's past, and her soaring soprano voice excelled on over a dozen songs.

The Rudetsky concerts are different from a typical cabaret show where a performer sings an evening of songs with scripted patter; here, they talk about their experiences in informative interview segments and Rudetsky changes around the song order and throws in unexpected numbers to keep the evening offbeat, fresh and exciting. Rudetsky, the musician, actor, writer, and "On Broadway" SiriusXM radio host, may have a laid-back, chatty delivery, but his knowledge of the performers he questions is vast, as is his knowledge of Broadway.

McDonald's vocal abilities are sublime. Her diction is clear with every lyric enunciated, her tone rich and warm, and her range impeccable. The song selection for this concert included a range of numbers from both well-known musical theatre writers, such as Stephen Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein, to contemporary songwriters including Jason Robert Brown.

"I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles opened the show in a driving version that got the evening off in a spirited fashion. McDonald spoke about her experiences growing up in Fresno, California, and how a song she sang at a competition was years beyond her knowledge base when she performed it as a young teenager. That song, "Cornet Man" from Funny Girl, is a soaring comical number and it was made even more humorous knowing how McDonald sang it when she was so young, even though she clearly didn't understand at that time what the song was about or the adult nature of the lyrics.

McDonald talked about how when she auditioned to get in at several schools, including some with musical theatre programs, she decided to go to Juilliard since, as she said, "It's Juilliard!," even though the program there was for classical singing and opera and not musical theatre. She spoke about how she was unhappy for most of her years at Juilliard since she wanted to be on Broadway and not on the opera stage.

She said that, growing up, she loved Barbara Cook but wasn't allowed to participate in a masterclass that Cook gave at Juilliard, though did get to usher for it. Years later, when she and Cook were friends and after she'd already won a couple of her Tony Awards, she was backstage at one of Cook's cabaret shows and had an encounter with one of her Juilliard teachers who she said was always terrible to her. At her senior recital, where Rudetsky played for her, the teacher said, "This obviously is not for you. Your sound is more Broadway, so I suggest you go and do that." When she saw him backstage at Cook's concert she said she couldn't believe he had the audacity to say, "It's so wonderful what's happened to you on Broadway. I told you that that's where you belong."

She also spoke about her two daughters and two stepsons and, as she has in her other concerts I've attended, mentioned that when they were younger, they didn't want to hear her sing. That included her never being able to sing any lullabies to her children. She delivered a beautiful medley of songs that she said she views as lullabies. "Bein' Green" opened the trio of songs that then segued into a lovely arrangement of "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific and "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods. It was a meaningful medley of songs that talk about inclusion and the importance of being yourself and how children learn both good and bad traits from their parents.

It had been Sondheim's birthday the day before the concert, and a pairing of his songs "What Can You Lose?" and "Not a Day Goes By" was gorgeous. McDonald also spoke about the difficulties in singing Stephen Sondheim songs, including the night she forgot the lyrics to one of his songs at an event where he was being honored. She also sang a soaring version of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, which included audience participation, and a song she's included in her cabaret repertoire for many years, Jason Robert Brown's beautiful "Stars and the Moon," which was infused with moments of comedy, insight and meaning. Two newer songs, the very funny "Baltimore," written by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, and a song Audra said she discovered on TikTok, "I Love Today" by Kim Kalesti, showed that she is equally at home singing contemporary songs as she is singing Sondheim.

There wasn't much time spent on the shows McDonald won her Tonys for, and only one song from the shows she won those awards for was included, a soaring delivery of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, which that McDonald delivered without using a microphone as one of her two encores. Fortunately, she did talk about her Tony-winning turn as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. She sang "Crazy He Calls Me" from that show, moving between her imitation of Holiday, which she said she modeled on her grandmother, and her natural voice, as if it was a duet between herself and Holiday. It was one of the many highlights of the evening, seeing the range McDonald has and how her exceptional acting and singing skills combine to morph into someone so different from herself.

Other highlights included an exceptional delivery of "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music, which McDonald sang in the live TV version of the show, and a stunning deliver of "Over the Rainbow." A song whose message she said was, "to live. Live with joy, with authenticity, for others and also for yourself," the title song from Cabaret received a different, driving arrangement than I've heard before and a clear, emotional, and impactful delivery from McDonald as the second and final encore for the evening.

The combination of Rudetsky's exemplary piano skills and his perceptive interviewing abilities brought out many personal, in-depth, and insightful stories from McDonald. Her ability to laugh at herself and for us to learn more about her as a person and why she chooses the songs she sings and roles she plays made for an impactful evening of thrilling musical performances.

Audra McDonald performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on March 23, 2024. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found at