When taking a journey through the proverbial Great American Songbook, one could not have a more accomplished tour guide than Audra McDonald.
The six-time Tony Award-winning singer and actress -- accompanied by pianist Andy Einhorn -- graced the stage of the Noorda Center at Utah Valley University on Monday, performing songs from her record-setting career and Broadway standards alike in an engaging 90-minute showcase.
McDonald, who has made a few diverse appearances locally over the past seven years since marrying Utah County native Will Swenson, showed off her tremendous talents, sometimes singing so softly you literally could hear a pin drop, and at other times dazzling the audience with her tremendous power and vocal agility. While not a theatrical performance, it was intriguing to see McDonald somewhat embody and project the spirit of the original character singing the song in her personal presentation, almost as if it were necessary to properly tap into the emotion of each tune.
Such was certainly the case during her take on "I'll Be Here," a touching tribute to love interrupted by the events of 9/11. The emotional toll of that song caused McDonald to wipe her eyes following its conclusion.
Another poignant moment came as she honored Diahann Carroll, the first African-American in a lead role to win a Tony Award for her role in the 1962 musical "No Strings." Carroll died on Friday at the age of 84.
Her intro to the song took on a momentary humorous note, as pianist Einhorn started in on it -- but was stopped by McDonald a few bars in.
"I was ready to sing a different one," McDonald laughed, "but I'm going to sing this one instead. It was first introduced into the world by someone I feel compelled to honor tonight -- Diahann Carroll. This was someone I knew and loved, and she means the world to me."
The song was "A Sleepin' Bee," which Carroll popularized in the 1954 musical "House of Flowers."
McDonald opened the show with "I Am What I Am" from "La Cage Aux Folles," and set the conversational tone of the evening by chatting up the audience after it was done.
When she asked a question and the crowd seemed reticent to respond, she quickly noted, "You can talk back to me, it's OK."
While introducing the second song, "Stars and the Moon," she even asked for potential audience participation, before jokingly shooting it down.
"Do you want to sing it with me?" she asked. "No, you can't -- it's my concert. Just kidding. ... No, not kidding!"
McDonald's song introductions were equal parts personal, humorous, insightful and inspiring.
Take, for instance, her intro to the ragtime-y "Cornet Man," from "Funny Girl." McDonald talked about growing up in Fresno, California, and how she sang this song for a theater talent competition when she was 13. One of the judges dinged her for her song choice, noting she couldn't possibly have any idea what she was singing about.
"I'm going to sing it," she told the Noorda audience with a chuckle, "and you'll know in about two seconds why I never should have been singing it."
At the conclusion, referring to a line in the song, McDonald said the judge's note had the comment, "What do you know about having your coffee percolated?"
Between songs, McDonald would often look back at Einhorn to get cues about which song was next up in the setlist.
"It's probably obvious to you at this point that I have no idea what song is next," she told the crowd at one point, before explaining a few of the visual cues Einhorn uses to clue her in.
"Summertime " -- which came from "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," for which McDonald garnered her fifth Tony Award in 2012 -- was another highlight, as were "Baltimore," "Simple Little Things," "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Make Someone Happy."
McDonald closed her main set with a supremely powerful rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," which she nailed in the 2013 NBC TV adaptation of "The Sound of Music Live!," where she played Mother Abbess.
She talked a bit about the challenges of pulling off a live TV performance -- and how "The Sound of Music Live!" was done on sound stages, and not before an actual audience.
"It's very disconcerting for a live performer to not have a little bit of feedback from the audience," she noted.
She also shared a humorous text message exchange she was having with a daughter between her performance sections of "The Sound of Music Live!" She mentioned telling her daughter she had to go perform her big number, "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," and how exhilarated she was to return to her little backstage cubicle after finishing that scene. Immediately upon returning, she received another text from her daughter, which she supposed would be a congratulatory message after witnessing it on TV.
Instead, McDonald said, the text read, "Mom, where are the dryer sheets, I want to do some laundry."
McDonald returned for one encore, performing the timeless "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." She left the stage by exhorting the audience to "Dream big, and love bigger!"
Catching a Broadway legend like McDonald on a local stage is a rare opportunity indeed -- but, as it turns out, not a once-in-a-lifetime one. McDonald returns to the Noorda stage Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. for a repeat performance.
TO SEE AUDRA McDONALD'S SETLIST, CLICK HERE.