The bliss that is Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald is just so darn normal – not that outrageous beauty and talent are normal. But the point is, she could be a raging diva if she so chose. And maybe she is offstage (though I doubt it), but onstage, she’s funny, self-deprecating and comfortable, just as you’d expect of a girl from Fresno.

McDonald was back in the Bay Area Sunday afternoon for a concert at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus as part of the Cal Performances season. McDonald has been something of a regular visitor to Berkeley, and she never disappoints.

Sunday’s was a concert that almost didn’t happen. Flying into SFO from Eugene, Ore., McDonald encountered a baggage snafu. In the Bay Area for only a few hours – song, slam, thank you, ma’am – before she had to return to L.A. to resume filming of the ABC series “Private Practice,” McDonald found that her luggage had been checked all the way through to L.A. And the really bad news was that all the sheet music for her Berkeley concert was in those bags.

Oh, well. She and pianist Dan Lipton joked that this concert could be called “Songs that We Could Find the Sheet Music For,” or something like that.

If anyone in the packed audience was worried that four-time Tony Award-winner McDonald would offer a less-than-stellar show, they were soon calmed by several things: a) McDonald’s svelte and sexy figure poured into a full-length, low-cut, summery red gown and b) from the first number, the sexy, bass-heavy “When Lola Sings,” a specialty number written for her by Michael John LaChiusa, one of the new-guard Broadway composers she champions.

Just as she was launching into her second number, McDonald halted the proceedings – could it be a diva moment? She said, “Sorry, it’s just one of those days,” and she leaned down and picked up a roll of duct tape a stagehand had left on the stage, which was thrown into the wings.

Messy details taken care of, McDonald and her four-piece band got down to business with a lovely medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair and Lerner and Lane’s “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. With her glorious soprano mixing otherworldly purity with your average, everyday shimmering beauty, McDonald delivers what might be considered show tune heaven.

Curiously, McDonald did not pay much attention to songs from her most recent album, “Build a Bridge” (on Nonesuch Records). She sang only one song from that contemporary collection, Adam Guettel’s “Dividing Day” from his Tony Award-winning The Light in the Piazza, which was a powerhouse dramatic aria in McDonald’s hands. This isn’t a complaint, it’s just that the album is so good that McDonald might have thrown a few more selections into her recital (then again, maybe that sheet music was in L.A.).

Absent a wealth of new material, the audience had to “suffer” through some McDonald standards such as Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and Moon,” an anti-capitalist story song that still packs a wallop, Jay Leonhart’s jazzy-funny “Beat My Dog,” the lustrous ballad “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello and Frank Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” from the Fred Astaire movie Let’s Dance.

Some of the 90-minute concert’s most intriguing numbers came from McDonald’s Carnegie Hall concert in which she sang songs that for one reason or another scared her. Among those songs were “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me,
Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” from the movie version of A Little Night Music and “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, performed beautifully with acoustic guitar (played by Brian Pardo).

Among the more dramatic moments were LaChiusa’s take on anger as part of a series of songs McDonald commissioned from her friends dealing with the seven deadly sins and the truly heartbreaking “I Won’t Mind,” a ballad of spinsterhood by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler and Libby Saines. McDonald’s version of “Bill” from Show Boat is usually a highlight, but McDonald diffuses the beauty of the song by putting it in a comic context. She chose to sing the song at an event honoring Bill Cosby, but the Bill in the song is just an ordinary guy and it turned out to be completely the wrong song to sing. So every lyric in the song that trumpets Bill’s lack of anything extraordinary gets an audience laugh because of the Cosby connection, and the song becomes something other than the lyrical beauty it is.

After a rousing audience sing-along to “I Could Have Danced All Night,” McDonald blended two Sondheim songs, “What Can You Lose?” from the movie Dick Tracy and “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along, then capped the show with an encore of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, performed without a microphone opposite Pardo’s acoustic guitar.

The only drawback to McDonald’s show was that it ended too soon. Where’s that cranked-up Judy Garland spirit of singing them all and staying all night? Oh, yeah. McDonald is the normal one with a real job and a 6-year-old daughter. We’ll just have to be grateful for what we get.

Here’s McDonald in concert (from her PBS “Build a Bridge” show) singing “Stars and Moon” with composer Jason Robert Brown at the piano:

Brown’s town

Usually, the sleepy little berg of Santa Rosa belongs to Charlie Brown, the melon-headed lad created by Santa Rosa’s favorite son, Charles M. Schulz.

Last Saturday night, Santa Rosa was indeed Brown’s town — Jason Robert Brown’s town.

The Broadway composer (a Tony Award-winner for Parade) was in concert for one night only to support a new theater company, the Roustabout, that has been offering training courses up to now and is preparing to take the next step and begin offering professional theater in Sonoma County.

Sort of Broadway’s answer to Billy Joel, Elton John and Barry Manilow rolled into one with sprinklings of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, Brown is one of those three-named composers — Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon — who have been touted as the future of Broadway for years now.

With only Parade (an under-appreciated work) and Urban Cowboy to represent his Broadway work, Brown might not seem to be a show tune savior. But his off-Broadway work — Songs for a New World, The Last Five Years — shows enormous potential and is being performed all around the country (San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theater will likely be doing Songs later this season, according to artistic director Eli Newsom, who has at the Brown concert).

During the two-act concert, which included a hearty helping of tunes from Brown’s excellent solo album, “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes,” and special guest Amy Ryder, offered two sneak peeks at Brown’s current works in progress.

His Act 1 closer, “Vegas,” is from Honeymoon in Vegas, a musical adaptation of the movie of the same name, and it is a winner. In full-on Frank Sinatra-Bobby Darin lounge-lizard mode, Brown rhymes “molar” with “roller” and sings “V-E-G-A-S, that spells love.” If the rest of the musical is anywhere near as spirited, it’ll be a winner.

That show likely won’t go into serious creative mode until next year. More pressing is 13, which begins rehearsals in a few days in Los Angeles (and begins previews in December and opens in January) at the Mark Taper Forum. It’s the story of Evan, a 13-year-old Manhattan boy whose parents divocrceand he ends up in Indiana with his mom just in time for his bar mitzvah. Brown performed a song about “being a geek” and why that fate is worse than death, and it demonstrates Brown’s trademark wit and intelligence.

Here are some sample lyrics from the song:

When you’re cool, you’ve always got a crowd.
You can break the rules and you’re allowed.
You can sway the gang in any direction?
It’s a high-speed connection
When you’re cool.

If you’re cool, you know you’ve got a shot,
But oh! If you’re not
It’s a waste, It’s a drag,
It’s ‘suck’ in a bag,
It’s the loneliest thing in the world.

Brown’s album “Someone Else’s Clothes” is worthy of buying in its entirety, but if you want to sample a few songs, try the song he wrote as a toast at his brother’s wedding, “Nothing in Common,” the hit-worthy “Someone to Fall Back On” and the extraordinary “Coming Together,” Brown’s response to the events of Sept. 11.

From Parade, you should hear the opening number, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” and from Songs for a New World, Brown’s biggest hit, “Stars and the Moon.”

To check in with Jason Robert Brown, read his entertaining blog.