It’s hard to summarize Audra McDonald’s artistry in a single adjective. “Sublime” comes to mind, but that sounds vaguely ethereal, and the six-time Tony Award winner, whose May 15 performance at The Granada Theatre was a highlight of UCSB Arts & Lectures’ season, is decidedly down-to-earth. Personable and self-effacing, she chatted amiably between songs, told genuinely amusing stories, and provided just enough context to fully appreciate the material.
McDonald skillfully weaved a musical mosaic of familiar, less-familiar, and unfamiliar songs, spotlighting the work of young musical theater artists (including several women) in between passionate renditions of standards by Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, and George Gershwin. (For “Summertime” from the opera Porgy and Bess, she put down the microphone and simply projected her magnificent voice.) Musical discoveries she shared ranged from a jazz number in which lyrics were superimposed onto Ella Fitzgerald’s improvised scatting; a deeply moving song in which a woman talks about the death of husband on 9/11; and a hilarious piece from Australia in which a woman reacts with horrified disbelief when an ex-lover invites her to be friends on Facebook.
As always, McDonald’s renditions of the classics were informed by her soulful interpretations of their lyrics. Jule Styne’s “Make Someone Happy” became a mantra for a meaningful life; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was a musical monologue of startled self-examination; and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was offered as a heartfelt homage to today’s young political activists. On a lighter note, she turned Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” into an audience sing-along — an exercise that could easily have turned corny but instead proved charming and funny. Pianist Andrew Einhorn, drummer Gene Lewin, and bassist Mark Vanderpoel provided superb accompaniment throughout.