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McDonald's 'Songs We Love Tour' stops in Hub

Susan Saccoccia | 9/28/2011, 3:16 p.m.
Audra McDonald is the lead in American Repertory’s “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” and is also starring in the “Songs We Love Tour.” Michael Wilson

She’s a celebrated Broadway musical theater actress and singer. She also plays Dr. Naomi Bennett in the TV series, “Private Practice.” And to a few thousand lucky theatergoers, Audra McDonald is the lead in the sold-out run of the American Repertory Theater production, “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” which closes on Sunday.

Later that afternoon, at 5 p.m. Bostonians will have another chance to experience a live performance by McDonald. The lyric soprano will sing selections from the American songbook at Symphony Hall, where the Celebrity Series of Boston opens its season by presenting “Audra McDonald in Concert.”  

The performance is the second concert in a nationwide, 20-city tour that McDonald will conclude at the end of November, just before starting Broadway previews of “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.”  

“We call it our ‘Songs We Love Tour,’ ” says Andy Einhorn, McDonald’s music director, on the phone in New York City. “We have a lot of new repertoire.”

The program will mix classics by such old masters as Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin with songs by younger composers. They include Boston-born musical theater writer Adam Gwon, conductor and musical director Steve Marzullo, pop-jazz balladeer Gabriel Kahane and David Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics for Broadway musicals “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Accompanying McDonald is a trio that has performed with her for more than five years: Einhorn on piano, bassist Mark Vanderpoel and drummer Gene Lewin.  

Einhorn began collaborating with McDonald in 2005, when she was rehearsing an opera in his hometown, Houston. She sought a vocal coach who understood both musical theater and opera and lived in Houston and New York. “I fit the bill,” says Einhorn.

“I was 24. I walked in the room and told her that her high C was a little flat. We immediately hit it off. It was a pinch-me moment. Here was one of the great musical theater artists of the past 50 years. She trusted me. She told me, ‘Please do not treat me as a fan. Treat me as a colleague.’ ”

Einhorn and McDonald also became friends. Months after they began working together, Einhorn’s mother invited her and the cast home for her son’s birthday party. Many tours and travels later, the two have spent countless hours together on stage, in studios and on airplanes. “One Christmas, we were surrounded by 80 inches of snow at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute performing at a private Christmas party,” says Einhorn, who has also befriended McDonald’s young daughter, Zoe.  

As McDonald’s musical director and pianist, Einhorn remains awed by her intelligence, energy and focus. “In rehearsal and performance,” says Einhorn, “I always feel my synapses running at their highest potential.”  

Describing a typical rehearsal, Einhorn says, “We sit down at the piano for a few hours. I bring in a stack of music. We woodshed it. We talk about what lyric means to her.”  

During today’s rehearsal, their last before the tour, one song was starting off wrong. “It was too busy,” says Einhorn. “The way I was playing competed with the bassist, drummer and singer. I stopped and said, ‘Let me thin this out.’ The song found its way. Each song is a journey. At the start, we like some freedom, and then the second half gains more structure, the groove.”

In the concert hall, the audience encounters McDonald in a more intimate setting. “The medium is so different than inhabiting a role in a theater production,” says Einhorn. “Up on stage, the singer is very vulnerable. The singer and the piano, bass and drums are four interlocking parts that come together to make a satisfying whole. We provide the cushion upon which the singer can comfortably rest so the music feels, at the end of the day, effortless.”