Versatile McDonald ranges far and wide in recital
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.