A new generation of American musical theater composers has a very good friend in Audra McDonald, the immeasurably gifted singer and actress who chose to make her solo recording debut with a disc of music from names that will hardly have consumers clogging the aisles at Tower Records. It won’t be long before McDonald herself will, I suspect. Singing selections from her solo disc, Nonesuch’s “Way Back to Paradise,” at Joe’s Pub, the handsomely appointed new cabaret and reading venue at the Public Theater, McDonald was simply spellbinding.
Her three Tonys notwithstanding, McDonald is a graciously earthbound performer, poking fun at her inadvertent pretension when she proprietarily referred to “my” band or “my next composer.” And yet what composer wouldn’t be grateful for such an endearment? McDonald has a voice as lovely as any in musical theater right now, as richly expressive at its softest as it is at full volume, exquisitely controlled and utterly beautiful in tone.
As both her album and her concert proved, McDonald also has ambitious and adventurous taste. The evening’s material was culled from the songbooks of a bright crop of young composers beginning to establish their reputations (with a single exception, an encore written by the now Tony-lauded “Ragtime” team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the delightful, calypso-inflected “Come Down From the Tree”). And, for the first of her three Monday-night gigs, most of the composers joined McDonald on vocals or at the piano.
A haunting, melodic pair of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, “Daybreak in Alabama” and “Song for a Dark Girl,” with texts by Langston Hughes, brought out smoothly evocative interpretations that were strongly contrasted with a peppier pair from Michael John LaChiusa, “See What I Wanta See” and “Mistress of the Senator” (from “Hello Again”). The latter tunes allowed McDonald to strut some more comically histrionic stuff.
Jason Robert Brown, whose first major musical, “Parade,” opens at Lincoln Center in December, accompanied McDonald on a breezy, pop-inflected story song from Brown’s “Songs for a New World.”
Adam Guettel, apparently one of the rare composers of his generation who doesn’t think that two first names are better than one (unlike Ricky Ian, Michael John and Jason Robert), played guitar and sang on a medley that combined Jeanine Tesori’s “Pie Jesu,” music from her score for Lincoln Center Theater’s “Twelfth Night,” with his own “Come to Jesus,” a song of admirable if sometimes strained melodic and lyric reach. Guettel’s “How Can I Lose You,” a more elegant and accessible song from his “Saturn Returns” song cycle, was also beautifully rendered.
In fact, McDonald, with her ability to act a song as winningly as she sings it without dipping into sentimentality or excessive theatricality, is an ideal interpreter of these composers’ works. She does justice to their often sophisticated subject matter and is attentive to every word of a lyric. But she’s also a straightforward singer — the warmth of her voice seems to come right from the heart.