Versatile McDonald ranges far and wide in recital

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / July 20, 2010

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LENOX — Musical theater, oscillating between repertory and innovation, demands its performers be polytropic: operetta-like legit sounds, jazz vernacular, pop casualness. The brilliance of Audra McDonald, who dropped by Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall for a solo recital Sunday night, is not just her ability to move through those styles, but that one never notices the change of channel.

It’s the illusion not of a multitude of voices, but that a single voice can seem so right for a multitude of situations.

McDonald’s program showed lightly worn connoisseurship; only Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring’’ and Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night’’ (whose ubiquity McDonald acknowledged by encouraging an audience sing-along) counted as standards. Her versatility was subtle in older songs; in Bock and Harnick’s “When Did I Fall in Love?’’ or Harold Arlen’s sublime “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe’’ McDonald treated the traditional legit Broadway sound as an initial surface, then upping the dramatic ante with a darker chest voice and microphone-enabled inflections.

Songs from a newer generation — including Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon’’ (practically a standard due to McDonald’s advocacy), and two numbers from an upcoming musical based on Marlene Dietrich’s writings by composer Michael John LaChiusa — were designed for amplification, a pull back from full voice into conversational intimacy. McDonald uses the microphone with uncommon fluency, a Streisand-like ability made explicit in a Streisand classic, Burton Lane’s “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,’’ modulating from bright show tune to brassy anthem.

McDonald can do most anything, from the tongue-twisting patter of Frank Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking’’ (a Betty Hutton specialty), to a turn at the piano, accompanying herself on Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V’’ — a tribute to McDonald’s late father, who wished that she played more piano in her concerts. (The rest of the program was accompanied by McDonald’s music director Ted Sperling, a model of unobtrusive excellence: rhythmically transparent, knowing when to indulge a lush harmony and when to coax extra sparkle from the piano’s upper range.)

As McDonald moved into such deeper emotional territory — a healthy dose of Stephen Sondheim, including a rich, powerful rendition of “The Glamorous Life’’ — she completed an effortless turn from dexterity to strength, a turn more impressive for being imperceptibly gradual. Like Sondheim, McDonald does amazing things by often seeming to do very little at all.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at


“A New American Songbook’’

With Ted Sperling, piano

At: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Sunday