Broadway legend Audra McDonald brings 'super-talent' to Eisenhower
By John Mark Rafacz
ow do you become a Broadway legend before the age of 30? Winning an unprecedented three Tony Awards for best featured actress while still in your 20s puts you in the conversation. Later becoming one of only three actresses to earn a fourth Tony strengthens your case. Routinely bringing down the house with your gorgeous soprano and remarkable acting pretty much seals the deal.
Audra McDonald, who has garnered Tonys for her Broadway performances in the musicals Carousel and Ragtime and the plays Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun, makes her Penn State concert debut November 29 at Eisenhower Auditorium. Joined by a jazz ensemble, the two-time Grammy Award winner performs an intimate evening of favorite show tunes, classic songs from the movies, and original pieces written for her.
“If the government were really serious about solving a problem like global warming, it might consider reaching out to Audra McDonald,” writes a Washington Post critic. “Because, simply put, the woman can do anything.”
McDonald’s autumn tour, which marks her return to multi-city concert appearances after four seasons on primetime television, is generating enthusiastic reviews. After seeing her perform at Carnegie Hall in October, Stephen Holden of The New York Times lamented that McDonald had been away from the stage for too long.
“For four seasons, while playing Dr. Naomi Bennett in the ABC series Private Practice, she more or less disappeared from music,” he writes. “While Ms. McDonald is a more than capable actor, she is a one-of-a-kind musical super-talent whose temporary sabbatical robbed the world of her singular gift at a moment when her voice was in its prime. Any of dozens of actresses could have stepped into her role, but as a singer she is an irreplaceable resource.”
One of McDonald’s most important qualities as a singer, Holden asserts, is “her aura of almost uncontainable enthusiasm. That sense of excitement, in which she tugs a song forward emotionally, is inherent in the quickness and tang of her vibrato, as though feelings are pouring out of her almost faster then they can be reined in. Her soprano voice is stronger than ever, its mighty middle range a daunting power tool.”
During August and September McDonald, who grew up in Fresno, California, and received classical vocal training at The Juilliard School, starred as Bess in the American Repertory Theater’s new production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few weeks after her Eisenhower concert, McDonald begins previews of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in New York City.
The show, scheduled for a January opening on Broadway, generated considerable controversy before its suburban Boston run. Some theatre observers, including composer Stephen Sondheim in a letter to The New York Times, argued that director Diane Paulus and the show’s producers were out of line for tinkering with the characters and title of the classic. The concerns turned out to be largely unwarranted when the alterations to the script were less dramatic than advance fears.
The reviews for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess were mixed. But McDonald’s portrayal elicited the kind of praise she has earned so often since her 1994 breakthrough in Carousel.
“She never sings these particular lyrics. But Audra McDonald has every right to say, ‘Bess, you is my woman now.’ That assertion is implicit in every aspect of her performance in The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” writes New York Times critic Ben Brantley. “… Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years. … Ms. McDonald combines the skills of a great actress and a great singer to stride right over any perceived gaps between the genres of musical and opera.”
In May McDonald performed in Carnegie Hall’s 120th Anniversary Concert, which also featured cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Gil Shaham, and the New York Philharmonic. When concert highlights were aired a few weeks later on PBS, McDonald hosted the show.
“The magic of McDonald … is such that she’s continually able to surpass expectations,” insists a Variety reviewer. “Everything is better than perfection, and she makes it look like fun, too.”
Whether she’s playing a character or being herself in concert, McDonald has a gift for revealing emotional truths.
“She pounces on a song like a cat,” writes a San Jose Mercury News critic, “then lives inside it.”
Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring a visiting artist or local expert, is offered in Eisenhower one hour before the McDonald performance and is free for ticket holders. Artistic Viewpoints regularly fills to capacity. Seating is available on a first-arrival basis.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 29
University Park Student $22
18 and Younger $39
TIAA-CREF sponsors the presentation.
WPSU is the media sponsor.