Audra McDonald fans who only know her from her run on the TV drama “Private Practice” don’t know Audra McDonald ... at all.
McDonald is a five-time Tony Award winner; she won most recently for the Broadway revival of “Porgy and Bess.” She possesses a voluminous soprano, something she had on full display at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Friday night for the Friends of the Sheldon benefit.
McDonald, resplendent in a fitted, long black dress and accompanied by her pianist/musical director Brian Hertz, walked onto the stage without a word and opened with “When I Fall in Love” from the musical “Fiorello!” She recorded the song on her 2000 album “How Glory Goes.”
Her voice proved as operatic as it was Broadway, and was consistently pitch perfect as it soared throughout the venue.
She promised a “wonderful hodgepodge of music” from American musical theater, and added, “I tend to sing songs off the beaten path” — forecasting an evening as challenging as it was delightful.
A few well-known staples seeped into the set, such as “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.”
“Let’s get it out of our system,” she told the crowd as she encouraged fans to sing with her during the night’s sole singalong.
McDonald thought “Stars and the Moon,” a song on her 1998 album “Way Back to Paradise,” might inspire another singalong and joked: “Some of you know it and are going to sing along. You better not. It’s my concert.”
She admitted she was a little punchy after being up late with her husband the previous evening with an Off Broadway in New York City production he’s involved in.
Her repertoire ran deep with unpredictable choices that mixed light and heavy tunes.
She preceded most every song with a story about why she’s singing it or what it means to her, such as the tale of the World War II vet outside of Chipotle in Cambridge, Mass., during her out-of-town tryouts for “Porgy and Bess.” She stumbled upon him singing a song she’d been singing since she was a little girl. In honor of him, she performed the song, “My Buddy,” in the same key he sang it that day.
“I Double Dare You” was simply a song she heard in the background of the Woody Allen movie “Radio Days” that grabbed her. “There’s no story beyond that,” she said. She added “Moonshine Lullaby” to her repertoire from “Annie Get Your Gun” once she realized she didn’t have any Irving Berlin in her repertoire. “Shame on me,” she said.
She had too much fun with “Baltimore,” a cautionary warning about dating men from the area, saying she felt it had a very important message, told humorously.
For Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V,” she sat at the piano and talked about her late father, who died in a crash of a plane that he piloted. She said he used to ask why she never played the piano after the lessons he paid for when she was young, and she said she was afraid, a signal that she needed to do it. She did so splendidly.
Just as poignant was “Go Back Home,” the title track to her latest album, taken from the Broadway play “The Scottsboro Boys,” as well as the Adam Gwon-penned “I’ll Be Here,” in honor of 9/11, something she said affected “everyone on the planet.”
McDonald approached her encore with the simple statement she wanted to sing some more, and told those in the crowd if it didn’t know this song, then shame on them. But that wasn’t the case with George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
But McDonald wanted to send the crowd home with a lullaby and decided to sing it off-microphone to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in honor of both marriage equality and Judy Garland.
McDonald also acknowledged her Missouri roots. After apologizing for a decade-long absence from St. Louis, she said she wouldn’t be here were it not for Missouri. It turns out her parents met at Lincoln University.
McDonald also plugged her role as Mother Abbess on the upcoming NBC remake of “The Sound of Music” starring Carrie Underwood, joking about her lack of makeup in the role and how she’s the “darkest mother” ever.