Happy Songs

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It was easy to come away from Audra McDonald’s first two records — ditto her Broadway cast productions, her spots on multiartist studio projects and her 2000 Meadow Brook Theatre show — with the notion that she could sing anything: It seemed she could turn on that high-drama approach and show off her incredible belting range and make numbers from the phone book sound just fine. Well … she’s called that bluff with her latest, and hearing the phone book only makes one long for something a little more engaging … say the Fibonacci numbers, or the Mersenne primes or the square root of two.

OK. OK. OK. It’s hyperbolic to compare a collection of melodies by the likes of Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers to a directory. But consider the context.

McDonald’s 1998 debut, Way Back to Paradise, was surprising not only for the singer — whose arrival has been likened to that of the young Barbra Streisand 40 years ago — but for the songs and songwriters introduced. There was Ricky Ian Gordon setting Langston Hughes to music. There was Michael John LaChiusa’s making to-hell-with-men feminism sound sassy in the title track and striking another stance in “Mistress of the Senator.” There was Adam Guettel’s come-to-Jesus dialogue set in an abortionist’s waiting room. There was plenty of unconventional fare.

Her follow-up, How Glory Goes, wove new Broadway-style composers with old masters — and that worked even better. It’s hard to outdo Glory’s closing triptych: McDonald makes palpable the longing of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” which dovetails with two recent tunes: a trapped miner’s meditations on heaven (the title track) and a finally a lover’s lullaby (“Lay Down Your Head”).

All of which makes this new collection seem modest in contrast. There is a clear concept at work: McDonald said she wanted an album that matched her happiness as a first-time mother. The cover shot inserts McDonald, Zelig-like, into a bus station scene that shouts 1940s, and most of the material is from then or earlier. McDonald makes better-known songs like “I Wish I Were in Love Again” sound fresh and makes lesser-known numbers like “I Double Dare You” sound familiar. She’s radiant on the wordless vocal of Duke Ellington’s “On a Turquoise Cloud.” Of the two fairly new (’80s-’90s) songs, LaChiusa’s “See What I Wanna See” is a decent retread of “Frankie and Johnny” territory, but Jay Leonhart’s “Beat My Dog” is a hoot. (And there’s a dollop of social commentary in Irving Berlin’s “Suppertime,” though no footnotes to cue unfamiliar listeners that this a subtle predecessor to the anti-lynching protest of “Strange Fruit.”)

Coupled with her upcoming TV role — on “Mister Sterling” a midseason entry on NBC — this may be the record that makes the McDonald-Streisand comparisons resonate with the masses. A pity if her new fans only hear her play it this happy and safe.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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