Take it as a measure of Audra McDonald’s versatility: Friday night, while she sang theater songs with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra for the opening of the orchestra’s 2015-16 season, McDonald could be seen on movie theater screens around town playing a dramatic role opposite Meryl Streep in the widely praised new film “Ricki and the Flash.”
The Broadway theater, we keep hearing, doesn’t produce stars anymore, at least not of the magnitude of Mary Martin or Ethel Merman. Surely McDonald is the exception. She’s not just talented. She’s a star. Talent and stardom aren’t the same thing. A star has a special kind of charisma that lights up a room, even a big one like Orchestra Hall, which quickly began to feel like an intimate cabaret Friday night during McDonald’s all-too-brief time onstage.
Broadway, to be sure, has taken notice of McDonald, having given her six Tony awards, more than anyone else in history. The most recent was for her impersonation last year of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar,” a portrayal described in one review as “uncanny.” Away from the stage, she has maintained a substantial recording career while acting in films and playing a lead role for several seasons in the dramatic series “Private Practice.”
In a program at Orchestra Hall that mixed songs with brief orchestral pieces, McDonald sang familiar numbers — “Moon River” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” — and lesser-known gems such as Harold Arlen’s bluesy “I Had Myself a True Love,” which displayed the singer’s velvety lyric soprano at its most emotive, and Frank Loesser’s frantic, tongue-twisting “I Can’t Stop Talking About Him,” an exercise in deft comic timing.
For her finale, drawing on her dramatic conviction and vocal prowess, McDonald turned the insufferably saccharine “Climb Every Mountain” into a touching anthem of courage and affirmation, at the end of which, having climbed her own vocal mountain, she hit a stunning, operatically flavored high note that brought a cheering audience to its feet. The hoped-for encore never happened. Maybe it was thought that anything following that awesome high note would be anti-climactic.
Of the orchestra pieces, the most intriguing was a pairing of Copland’s seldom-heard “Letter From Home” with Barber’s familiar “Adagio for Strings,” an elegiac interlude acknowledging the events 14 years ago on Sept. 11. The evening’s tone, though, was festive, a welcome departure from the customarily solemn, long-winded season-openers. Mary Louise Knutson played elegant jazz piano in the lobby before, and afterward free champagne was served.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.