Audra McDonald was in grand merry-making form for much of her magnificent L.A. Opera concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Performing a diverse selection of songs spanning almost a century of the American musical and interspersing these works with charmingly playful patter, she gave ample room Saturday night to novelty numbers that allowed this dramatic singer a rare opportunity to flex her musical comedy muscles.
Yes, the woman who won her fifth Tony Award last year for her defiantly realistic portrayal of a drug-addicted prostitute in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" happens to be an ace clown.
McDonald sang teasing lullabies, lieder using Craigslist "poetry" and a cheeky number cautioning women about dating losers from Baltimore. (The latter song, Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler's "Baltimore," is on McDonald's latest and arguably finest recording, "Go Back Home.")
She turned herself into a lovesick chatterbox with the hilarious "Can't Stop Talking About Him," the Frank Loesser ditty made famous by Betty Hutton in the movie "Let's Dance." The tale she spun around "My Buddy," the Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson song she heard performed by a World War II veteran outside of a Chipotle in Harvard Square when she was in out-of-town tryouts for "Porgy and Bess," was every bit as giddy.
She accelerated the tempo of "I Could Have Danced All Night," the bubbly Frederick Loewe-Alan Jay Lerner number from "My Fair Lady" that McDonald acknowledged is the kind of popular song she has tended to avoid. A champion of the art songs of her musical theater contemporaries, McDonald has been somewhat chary of the golden age songbook. Saturday night she indulged her older fans and even allowed them to sing along for a couple of choruses.
The theater, as a result, was wreathed in smiles — a welcome distraction from the unattractive staging, which was accessorized with three giant funereal arrangements of flowers that could do nothing to soften the stark lighting or relieve the banality of the wood paneling backdrop.
Performing with a deft trio led by music director and pianist Andy Einhorn, McDonald has a moonlight radiance that doesn't need much help, but she shouldn't have to overcome such an aesthetic deficit.
McDonald last performed at the L.A. Opera in "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" in 2007 and seemed perfectly at home in her old haunt, even when she sheepishly took a seat at the piano for Adam Guettel's "Migratory V," in a homage to her late father who paid for all those piano lessons. Her rapport with the audience was instant, as though she were reuniting with old friends.
She told self-deprecating anecdotes about her days at the Juilliard School, revealed that her daughter can't stand the sound of her singing and talked about how it felt to be back in the city she called home during her years on the ABC drama "Private Practice."
But lest this description lead you to think that this concert was a strictly lighthearted affair, let me assure you that there was hardly a dry eye in the house when she sang "I'll Be Here," the 9/11 song by the young composer Adam Gwon from his musical "Ordinary Days," produced at South Coast Repertory in 2010.
Equally devastating was McDonald's rendition of "Go Back Home," the hauntingly beautiful John Kander and Fred Ebb ballad from their groundbreaking musical "The Scottsboro Boys" that she made the title song of her new album. This version has become one of the most played tracks on my iPod, so I've had time to ponder the secret of McDonald's genius.
Her great gift of combining purity of sound with purity of emotion is predicated on a fertile dramatic imagination. When she sings, she becomes the overarching character of the song, adjusting her tone and timbre the way a great actor (which she also is) adjusts her accent.
Sometimes that character is none other than herself. With "Make Someone Happy," the song by Jule Styne, Adolph Green and Betty Comden that she said has become her mantra, she infused the lyric "love is the answer" with religious ecstasy, her soprano soaring into a realm of absolute devotion.
For an encore, she reached rarefied heights with a gorgeously balmy "Summertime," then swooped into a chromatic sublime with "Over the Rainbow," which she dedicated to Judy Garland and the marriage equality movement — a cause she says she feels especially passionate about, having been herself a beneficiary of the civil rights movement.
When I sometimes regret that I was born too late to have seen Laurette Taylor in "The Glass Menagerie," Kim Stanley in "Bus Stop" and Ethel Merman in "Gypsy," I console myself by remembering all the times I've seen Audra McDonald, a historic talent who at 43 is just entering her prime.