Audra McDonald

Way Back to Paradise

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Broadway star Audra McDonald took an unexpected approach to her debut solo album, eschewing the usual practice of performing standards in favor of spotlighting a group of young theater composers in songs, many of them given their first recordings, written for her or for so far unproduced musicals. Jason Robert Brown, Jenny Giering, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, and Michael John LaChiusa contributed a variety of material, allowing McDonald to assume such characters as the wife of an accused murderer (Brown's "You Don' t Know This Man" from the subsequently produced Parade), an expectant mother (Guettel's "Baby Moon"), and the "Mistress of a Senator" (from LaChiusa's 1994 musical Hello Again). LaChiusa's "Way Back to Paradise" was a feminist anthem from Marie Christine, a show in which McDonald planned to star, while "A Tragic Story" was Guettel's setting of a comic poem by William Makepeace Thackeray, and "A Lullaby" was Gordon's melody to a text by James Agee. Thus, the material was diverse, if unfailingly theatrical. Nevertheless, this was an art project, with its restrained, piano plus chamber orchestra arrangements and seriously intended, dramatic songs. What kept it from being stuffy and fragmented was the commitment of McDonald's performances. Along with a stunning soprano voice, she proved very much a singing actress who invested each song with a believable character. She was better at passion than humor (notably failing to bring out the ironic sting in Brown's "Stars and the Moon"), but she saved Gordon's three settings of texts by Langston Hughes, even making them the structure on which the rest of the album hung. She deserved accolades both for the risky concept of the album and for its execution.

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