Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald
Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Audra McDonald Wows at UH's Madison Artist Series

She's played a doctor in a Grey's Anatomy spinoff, Billie Holiday in a new musical commemorating her life, the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, and so many other disparate roles that even she probably can't keep track of them.

Singer and actress Audra McDonald, holder of six Tony Awards and two Grammys on the side, brought her talents to Houston for a one-night-only performance Tuesday to benefit the University of Houston's Moores School of Music through the Madison Artist Series.

Singing at the Wortham Theater, McDonald showed off her strong vibrato and sliding glissandi amid an assortment of show tunes and blues numbers, accompanied by her touring pianist and music director Andy Einhorn.

"The last time I was singing here was in 2006, and I got one of the worst reviews of my life," McDonald said after her opening number.

McDonald hit high pitches with ease, making the difficult octave leaps in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" sound easy, while her lower range had a deep, woody timbre reminiscent of a viola. She convincingly switched from perky numbers written for ingénues to dark songs for the disenchanted and scorned women of musical theater.

Several of the pieces on the program would have been at home in a sultry cabaret club, such as "It Might As Well Be Spring" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair and "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here" from Lane and Lerner's On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, which McDonald melded seamlessly, easing the audience into the slightly more upbeat second song.

During "Baltimore," a comedic song by contemporary songwriters Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, McDonald had the audience in fits of giggles at all the right times.

McDonald's acting talents came out to play during "Moments in the Woods" from Sondheim's Into The Woods, in which the baker's wife voices her inner dialogue about a tryst she's just had with Cinderella's Prince Charming. The character waffles between trying to forget the encounter and reveling in it, and McDonald captured that internal conflict with inflection and gesture effectively, even without the aid of staging.

The audience enthusiastically joined McDonald for a sing-along with "I Could Have Danced All Night" from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady--this should hardly be a surprise, since a fair amount of the audience consisted of students or faculty from the Moores School. There was at least one strong bass voice in the balcony that positively echoed through the hall--a voice professor, no doubt!

Frank Loesser's "Can't Stop Talking About Him" from Let's Dance showcased McDonald's athleticism in diction--the song was lightening-fast, with syllables flying like buckshot.

"This next one is a song I never thought I'd sing and a role I never thought I'd play. I was the darkest Mother Abbess the world has ever seen," McDonald said to introduce a stunning, heartfelt rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. She performed this role during the 2013 NBC production for television.

As an encore, the Moores School Jazz Orchestra joined McDonald in "Ten Thousand Four Hundred Thirty-Two Sheep," an upbeat, swing-style number that included some shouted parts from the orchestra. It was a fond and agreeable gesture, but I couldn't help but wish that she had done more with the orchestra than just a single song.

The event was part of the annual Moores Society fundraising gala, and the society did not disappoint, with many members decked out in their finest gowns and furs--"March is a great month for chinchilla," I overheard one patron say.

McDonald made a final dedication, which was:."Love is love is love. Love whoever you want to love, and marry whoever you want to marry."

While this was applauded by a great deal of the students and musicians in the audience, others were silent. However, McDonald still received an enthusiastic standing ovation after the last song.

The Madison Artist Series is a new concert series that is geared toward UH students, faculty and donors, as well as increasing the visibility of the school on a national scale. Upcoming concerts include bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in April 2016 and pianist Lang Lang in September 2016. Visit uh.edu/class/music for more information.

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