On leave from A Raisin in the Sun, quadruple Tony winner Audra McDonald recently gave four performances of a 75-minute concert in Zankel Hall. In Raisin, her hair (or wig) is staidly slicked down; at Zankel, it corkscrewed out in all directions, even as her renditions of fifteen songs let loose multidimensional sparks. She worked her roaring audience better than Siegfried & Roy their tigers, but I must agree with the Times’ Anthony Tommasini in deploring her use of a mike. In a smallish space, the amplification only muddied her fine diction, and tainted her blooming, many-shaded voice—a case of gelding the lily.
Accompanied by Ted Sperling, her music director and part-time arranger, on piano, and five apt instrumentalists, McDonald began with six preexisting numbers by well-known songwriters, climaxing with Adam Guettel’s sterling title song from his long-gestating musical The Light in the Piazza. Guettel was commissioned to supply a new work but reneged, so various hands were rushed in to provide one song each to a cycle on The Seven Deadly Sins. This stacks up shakily against the great Brecht-Weill opus, but at least John Michael LaChiusa (Anger), Jeff Blumenkrantz (Sloth), and the team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey (Greed) came through with flying colors. The other four sins were subjected to various degrees of additional deadliness.
It is a mystery how Melissa Levis and David Weinstein, with assists from Neil Ginsberg and Beth Saulnier, could have spent four years readying The Joys of Sex, including conning nine other adults into producing it. (The tenth, Benjamin C. Singer, is explicable as Levis’s husband.)
The musical was first seen in the Fringe Festival, but transfers to closer venues are rather like trying to convert a shoelace into a necktie. (Mind you, like everything else, that too has been done.) A married couple is trying desperately to have offspring; a Jewish nerd is frantically striving to bed a black swinger. In the process, some sexual fantasies are enacted, but even a visit to an S&M club remains no closer to X-rated than G-. The whole thing is that deeply dishonest commodity a clean dirty joke, with nothing bared except lack of talent.
Aside from all else, it is risky business to make performers who have trouble with one part undertake several. A seductive life-size female dummy in the lobby comes as close as the show ever does to sex, never mind the joys of it.