The Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra-linked Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Great Performers in Concert series has presented many great performances during its first 10 years.
But probably no performer in the series at the River Center Theatre has combined the usually separate worlds of classical and popular music better than Friday’s guest star, Tony- and Grammy-winning singer and actress Audra McDonald.
A Juilliard-schooled soprano, McDonald bridges the Broadway stage and the opera house. Her lovely voice has a golden, natural warmth in its lower register. As for high notes, she placed them sparingly, making maximum impact.
There’s great power in McDonald’s voice and passion in her performance. She exploited those qualities for dramatic effect, singing music and lyrics with moving expression.
Unlike many Pennington series guests, especially in the pop music field, who bring their own bands and perform without the orchestra, all of McDonald’s songs featured conductor Timothy Muffitt and the symphony players. The orchestra did a beautiful job with McDonald’s full-dress arrangements of songs from Broadway and Hollywood.
McDonald could easily have sung a greatest hits of stage and cinema sort of show, but she avoided the obvious. It’s a refreshing approach and McDonald, thanks to her abundant talent and taste, worked it like a charm.
Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon,” a story song from his 1995 revue, “Songs for a New World,” has been in McDonald’s repertoire for years. It’s a song about possibilities and, ultimately, regret, expressed by a woman who didn’t make the wisest choices. Actress and storyteller McDonald evocatively conveyed the song’s sweeping dramatic range.
McDonald’s gifts include an ability to express wonder. She did so expansively in “It Might as Well Be Spring,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from their 1945 movie musical, “State Fair.”
McDonald paired the latter burst of joy with the exuberant “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” a song from “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” Barbra Streisand starred in the 1970 film version of the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner Broadway musical.
McDonald, despite her five Tony Awards and two Grammy Awards, as well as prime-time TV work in “Private Practice” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” isn’t as well known as Streisand, but her performance of the Streisand-identified “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” was sensational.
Taking a light operatic approach for “My Buddy,” McDonald turned the sentimental standard from the 1920s into another showcase, especially when she hit a climactic high note saved for the final few bars.
Impressive as the concert’s first half was, McDonald and the orchestra topped it after intermission. Another of McDonald’s pairs of songs, “Whose Little Angry Man,” from the 1973 stage musical, “Raisin,” and “Baby Mine,” from the 1941 Disney animated movie musical, “Dumbo,” must have moved the hardest of hearts.
There was more emotional storytelling via the post-9/11 set “I’ll Be Here,” from Adam Gwon’s musical, “Ordinary Days.” An encore of a Lena Horne song, “Ain’t It the Truth,” a life-affirming romp composed by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg of “Over the Rainbow” fame, ended this highlight among the Pennington Foundation concerts on a rousing note.