Audra McDonald Soars at the Balboa

Audra MacDonald [photo (c) Autumn de Wilde]

Audra MacDonald [photo (c) Autumn de Wilde]

When the typical opera diva appropriates in concert songs from musical theater, it is hard to escape that tinge of condescension. But when Audra McDonald interprets this repertory, we know from her first phrase that she is on home turf and that she will inhabit every song she chooses like a second skin.

Her concert for the La Jolla Music Society Friday (Oct. 25) at the Balboa Theatre downtown confirmed not only her authority in this arena, but also revealed her ability to captivate her audience with patter than was equal parts astute musical footnote and personal confession.[php snippet=1]

A McDonald program is always the antithesis of nostalgia: in her just-under-two-hour intermission-free set, she sang but three songs that could be classified as “standards.” Opening with a deliciously romantic and completely obscure “When Did I Fall in Love” from the 1959 musical Fiorello!, she established her standard of rich vocal delivery and probing emotional reflection. Opening up the narrative beneath each song’s text and coaxing the audience into her confidence is her signature as a performer, which she eloquently demonstrated in Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s “Stars in the Moon” and that 1920’s Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn classic “My Buddy.”

A Stephen Sondheim number from Into the Woods? Don’t expect from McDonald an endearing “No One Is Alone”—instead she gave us her edgy, urgent “Moments.” For her tribute to the celebrated Kander and Ebb duo, you should just forget about your favorites from Chicago and Cabaret. Instead she selected the earnest “Go Back Home” from the duo’s final collaboration The Scottsboro Boys, which gave McDonald an opportunity to make some potent political and social observations. From Irving Berlin’s last hit musical Annie Get Your Gun, she turned out “Moonshine Lullaby,” with some sweet vocal harmonizing form her band: pianist Andy Einhorn, bassist Mark Vanderpoel, and drummer Gene Lewis. You can be forgiven for not recognizing “Moonshine Lullaby,” since this song was left on the cutting room floor when they made the 1950 motion picture of Annie Get Your Gun.

Coy humor is another McDonald calling card. Threatening (pormising?) to sing some German lieder as a tribute to her own classical vocal training, she gave us two of Gabriel Kahane’s “Craigslistlieder,” tongue-in-cheek send-ups of contemporary dating posts treated like the staid love poetry that inspired those myriad German art songs that endure solely in academic vocal recitals. Kahane was a resident composer/performer in the La Jolla Music Society’s 2012 SummerFest, and McDonald’s performance of his music proved far more persuasive than the composer’s.

About those standards: using “I Could Have Danced All Night” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady as an audience sing-along bordered on a ploy to allow the soloist some interpolated stratospheric high notes at the final cadence. But Julie Styne’s “Make Someone Happy” proved as persuasive and heart-tugging as a Judy Garland rendition. Her Garland tribute, “Over the Rainbow,” concluded the concert on a strangely poignant yet hopeful note.

[box] This concert at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego was the first of three programs in the La Jolla Music Society’s Cabaret Series at that venue. The next Cabaret program will feature Patti LuPone on January 31, 2014, also at the Balboa.

Tickets: 858.459.3728;[/box]

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