Poor Audra McDonald. The four-time Tony winner has worked herself into a position where audiences arrive at her appearances expecting nothing short of absolute perfection. This can be wearing on an artist, as any number of top-of-the-liners can attest. The magic of McDonald, as displayed in a concert that opened Lincoln Center’s American Songbook season, is such that she’s continually able to surpass expectations. Everything is better than perfection, and she makes it look like fun, too.
McDonald, working with longtime musical director Ted Sperling, has always demonstrated an innate talent for picking the right material. Here she sang songs old and new, fresh and familiar, sweet and sassy. The latter was demonstrated off the bat with “When Lola Sings,” apparently written to order by Michael John LaChiusa for his muse. (McDonald pointed out that the lyric tells of a “big-hipped Venus who’s colored chocolate brown.”)
All of the ubiquitous three-name composers were represented; Jason Robert Brown even showed up to accompany the star on “Stars and the Moon.” Also on the music stand were various fellows with only two names, like Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (who provide two stunning songs).
Selections were so varied that one almost had the impression McDonald was auditioning, simultaneously, for six very different roles. “Will He Like Me?” (from “She Loves Me”) and “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” (from “On a Clear Day”) were equal treats. Alan Jay Lerner’s lyric for the latter speaks of “a gift package of shower, sun and love,” all the more effective as the five-story window wall behind McDonald provided a backdrop of Central Park South whipped by a swirling rainstorm.
Among the highlights must be listed “The Glamorous Life” from “A Little Night Music” — not the Broadway version but the different song Sondheim wrote for the film. One of his most adventurous and least known pieces, it was glamorous and glorious in McDonald’s hands (and effectively arranged for the 10-piece band).
In the rising young songwriter section were “Cradle and All” (Ricky Ian Gordon/Jessica Molaskey), “I Won’t Mind at All” (Jeff Blumenkrantz/Annie Kessler/Libby Saines) and “I Wanna Get Married.” Nellie McKay, composer-lyricist of the latter, almost stole the stage from McDonald, head swinging like a bobble-head doll as she played the piano part and vocalized in the background. These three selections, along with Brown’s song, were especially effective.
Songs from “outside the theater,” as McDonald put it, included “My Stupid Mouth” (John Mayer), Laura Nyro’s “Tom Cat Goodbye” and Kermit the Frog’s song “Bein’ Green” (Joe Raposo).
Patti LuPone dropped by to help re-create the legendary Garland-Streisand pairing of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy.” (LuPone: “I’ll be Judy tonight.” McDonald: “I’ll be Babs.”)
McDonald capped the evening with an ever-so-gentle “Edelweiss” (delicately accompanied by guitar and violin) and an audience sing-along to Arlen & Harburg’s “Ain’t It de Truth.”
Sperling, conductor of choice for the younger breed of Broadway composers, led an impeccable band. Guitarist Dan Petty stood out by virtue of two solo numbers. There was also some impressive playing in spots from various reed instruments, all played by Dan Willis. Six of the selections are included on McDonald’s new CD, “Build a Bridge.”
When the inevitable cell phone went off just as McDonald was heading into a song, she did not stop angrily or shout obscenities into the audience, as divas do at Madison Square Garden. She simply smiled, sang “cell phone off, please” — seemingly set to the music — and launched into the melody.
Just about everybody acclaims McDonald’s voice, although the star quoted her 5-year-old daughter as saying, “Mommy, your singing makes my ears cry.” Audra makes her audience cry, true — and laugh, and beam and truly exult, drifting out of this season’s American Songbook premiere on a cloud.
Seating for the two-night gig was limited to 828 lucky customers, but one assumes the affair came across just as powerfully on last night’s “Live at Lincoln Center” telecast on PBS of the second (and final) perf.