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Audra McDonald's Unique Style Rings With Sensitivity


So far in her brief career, Audra McDonald has barely been able to set foot on a stage without someone handing her a Tony Award. What's propelling her toward true diva-dom, however, is the intelligent, artistic and wholly uncompromising way she is approaching her recording and concert careers.

She displayed that sensitivity to glorious advantage Saturday evening at the Irvine Barclay Theatre as she made her Southern California concert debut in front of a cheering, sold-out audience that, in many instances, had already purchased her latest, not quite two-week-old CD and committed it to memory.

McDonald grew up in Fresno, where she began performing at age 9 and developed a love for the stage that took her to Juilliard. The instructors there pushed her toward opera, which frustrated her at the time but clearly benefited her singing. Her rich mezzo-soprano--which rings in her upper range and turns deliciously dusky toward the bottom--is a comfortable blend of vibrato-rippled opera and smooth Broadway pop, with ample amounts of blues and gospel mixed in.

This rare and wonderful combination has proved irresistible on Broadway, where McDonald made history by winning featured actress Tonys for her first three roles: as Carrie Pipperidge in "Carousel" (1994), as the most promising of Maria Callas' student singers in "Master Class" ('96) and as the hard-luck Sarah in "Ragtime" ('98)--all while still in her 20s. (Southern California saw only one of these performances, in the Taper's pre-Broadway presentation of "Master Class.")

Rather than cash in by recording albums filled with her award-winning work, plus a few predictable standards, she has instead delivered two CDs that champion a new generation of Broadway composers--most of whom are mavericks writing sophisticated art songs in an age still besotted with Andrew Lloyd Webber. As on the new Nonesuch album, "How Glory Goes," the two-hour Saturday concert placed songs by such emerging talents as Michael John LaChiusa ("Hello Again" and McDonald's most recent New York show, "Marie Christine"), Jason Robert Brown ("Parade") and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Ragtime") alongside refreshingly atypical tunes by such greats as Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.

The selections proved illuminating and, at times, heartbreaking, as in a three-song set that grouped "Dream Variations" and "Song for a Dark Girl" (recent Ricky Ian Gordon compositions based on Langston Hughes poems) with "Supper Time" (a Berlin song for Ethel Waters in the 1933 Broadway show "As Thousands Cheer"). The first, filled with black pride and suffused with hope ("To fling my arms wide / In the face of the sun, / Dance! Whirl! Whirl!") stands poignantly beside the other two, in which women cry to a seemingly unhearing heaven ("I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer," in "Dark Girl") after the lynching of their lovers.

Sitting on a stool through much of the concert and backed by the trio of pianist-music director Ted Sperling, bassist (and fiance) Peter Donovan and drummer Bill Hayes, McDonald eschewed showy, heart-on-her-sleeve theatrics for an introspective approach that drew listeners close and took them inside.

In addition to the aching mother's apology "Your Daddy's Son" (from "Ragtime," the program's one sample of her Broadway work), she put tears in her own and others' eyes with such songs as the doting aunt's lullaby "I Won't Mind," the regret for loves that might have been in "Stars and the Moon," and a quiet, satin-smooth tribute to Judy Garland in "The Man That Got Away."

Sure, you could have argued with some of her interpretations--an almost relentlessly chipper take on the Arlen-Johnny Mercer "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home," from 1946's "St. Louis Woman," or a hiccuping, barely controlled race through Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm"--but her appeal lies in this very unpredictability, in her determination to find in each number a logic and an emotional resonance that is uniquely her own.

Key moments can be relived in a concert at London's Donmar Warehouse, airing tonight at 10 on KCET, and, of course, there's always that new CD.

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