Three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald has released an impressive new Nonesuch CD, “Happy Songs,” featuring music from the early decades of the 20th century. Her Cerritos Center concert, however, only included four cuts from the album, concentrating largely on unfamiliar works by composers McDonald admires. It’s a tribute to her talent that she makes songs by Jeffrey Blumenkrantz, Steve Marzullo and Jason Robert Brown as exciting and memorable as the works of Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern.
Backed by Dan Lipton’s richly orchestral piano, husband Peter Donovan on bass and Dave Ratajczak’s subtly driving drums, McDonald established a comfort factor immediately with her wistful, yearning rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” She was even more captivating on “Stars and the Moon,” by Brown, from his 1995 Off Broadway musical, “Songs for a New World.” Brown’s mini-movie, about a woman who regrets marrying for security rather than love, showed McDonald’s flair for narrating a complex story through music.
Switching to the Kern/Hammerstein standard, “Bill” from “Show Boat,” she brought irony and conviction, along with beautifully integrated hand gestures, to a lyric that often sounds artificial when done by other performers. Her warmly understated “He Loves and She Loves” benefited from Donovan’s extended and dramatic bass solo.
In perfect voice despite a cold that made her sneeze during the program, McDonald brought upbeat spirituality to Michael John LaChiusa’s “There Will Be a Miracle” and a poetic sensitivity to Marzullo’s “Some Days,” with tune set to a James Baldwin poem.
The greatest thrills of the concert came when she showcased her gorgeously gutsy side. “I Double Dare You” had a saucy, confrontational directness, and in “Beat the Dog,” she wailed, “I lie, I steal, I cry for you,” and sounded exactly like a jaded 50-year-old, rather than a woman in her early 30s.