The day after Deborah Grace Winer pounded a nail into cabaret’s coffin with a gloomy Times report, Audra McDonald turned the hammer’s head around to the claw end and extracted that nail with a swift, elegant gesture. Unleashing a warm soprano that could melt the Arctic, McDonald brought cabaret to Joe’s Pub, the new room at the Public for “eclectic programming.”
Cabaret is where the American theater song is placed for safekeeping–now more so, since TV and radio formats are no longer hospitable. McDonald honored tradition but with a twist in a show called “Way Back to Paradise.” Rather than celebrate tunesmiths no longer among us, she picked material by 10 composers and lyricists from what she, at 28, calls “our generation.” On opening night she beckoned songwriters– including Jason Robert Brown, Jenny Giering, and Adam Guettel–to the corner stage as accompanists and supporting vocalists. (She’ll have guests join her throughout her already extended string of Monday performances.) If McDonald intended to demonstrate that songwriting and cabaret are alive and swell, she succeeded so thoroughly that pessimists can stop furrowing their brows.
Giving her Juilliard classical training a workout, McDonald lofted top notes at the 19-feet-high ceiling but also got guttural when a song offered the temptation. Since she hasn’t won three Tonys for nothing, she showed off considerable acting chops but was never heavy-handed about recurring themes–being black, being a woman with conflicting needs and desires, being a mother (though she isn’t one). On the motherhood issue, she introduced “Baby Moon,” Guettel’s companion piece to “Soliloquy”–melody by his grandfather, Richard Rodgers.
In a palindrome: avid Diva.