With a fourth Tony award now adorning her mantel, Audra McDonald returns to a busy week. Spliced in between perfs in "A Raisin in the Sun," the actress exercises her musical muscles at Zankel Hall twice this week, continuing a brief run of concerts. It's an enchanting evening: McDonald's voice and presence are an appealing combination.

With a fourth Tony award now adorning her mantel, Audra McDonald returns to a busy week. Spliced in between performances in “A Raisin in the Sun,” the actress exercises her musical muscles at Zankel Hall twice this week, continuing a brief run of concerts offering a few favorites from her songbook as well as a zesty new song cycle based on the ever-useful concept of the seven deadly sins. It’s a small-scaled but enchanting evening: McDonald’s radiant voice and relaxed presence are an immensely appealing combination.

Carnegie Hall had originally commissioned a new piece from Adam Guettel for the occasion, but Guettel couldn’t meet the deadline. Rather than fall back on a whole evening of old material, McDonald and music director Ted Sperling called up a handful of young composers and lyricists and doled out a sin apiece. When McDonald calls, not only do songwriters jump to attention — they deliver.

Michael John LaChiusa takes a poke at hypocrisy in “The Christian Thing to Do,” a drawling country tune that McDonald delivered with a languorous sweetness behind which bitterness plainly seethed.

Humor figured in many of the songs, which made Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ mournful gloss on gluttony, “I Eat,” a refreshing anomaly. Flaherty’s undulant melody provided a haunting underpinning for Ahrens’ chilling lyric about the manifold voids that overeaters eat to fill.

Jake Heggie, best known for his art songs for top-tier divas as well as the opera “Dead Man Walking,” offered a funny string of self-infatuated nonsense phrases interspersed with personal pronouns in “Blah Blah Me,” to which McDonald brought a funny, preening preciousness.

Switching vocal gears to a rawer register, the singer torched her way through Steve Marzullo and Mark Campbell’s “Burning the Sauce,” one of the less compelling songs, which rather overworked the cooking metaphors.

The slate of sins was completed by Jeff Blumenkrantz’s elaborate story song “My Book,” in which McDonald portrayed a procrastinating author seeking a little help from her friends; Ricky Ian Gordon’s contemplative, melodically venturesome look at envy, “Can You Look Me in the Eye”; and a winning, finger-snapping novelty number called “The Greedy Tadpole,” with Jessica Molaskey’s intricate lyrics stepping lightly across John Pizzarelli’s music.

The evening was filled out by a selection of McDonald’s favorites, highlighted by one of Flaherty and Ahrens’ “trunk” songs cut from “Once on This Island,” “Come Down From the Tree,” sung with melting warmth; and a plaintively sultry “I Must Have That Man,” by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields.

McDonald also offered a tantalizing taste of Guettel’s new Broadway-bound musical, singing the title selection from “The Light in the Piazza.” It was a promising glimpse, but McDonald’s gorgeous tone and naturally expressive manner will be hard to match.

Audra McDonald

Zankel Hall; 600 seats; $62 top

Production

Presented inhouse. Music director and pianist, Ted Sperling. Reviewed June 4, 2004.

Cast

Musicians: Rick Heckman, Peter Sachon, Brian Koonin, Dave Phillips, Dave Ratajczak.
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