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Ahead of her star turn on Broadway in Porgy and Bess, Audra McDonald takes on the Great American Songbook at Ingram Hall

Bess in Show

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Four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald may not be a household name, but her vocal artistry has won her a devoted fandom and the respect and admiration of her peers. If you haven't seen McDonald live on a New York stage, you might know her most readily from her appearances on PBS specials, usually delivering show tunes with operatic style and power. She'll be starring in a forthcoming Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, and she's currently in the midst of a concert tour that brings her to Ingram Hall on Tuesday.

McDonald and her potent soprano shift with ease between musical theater and the classical world. Her opera debut, at Houston Grand Opera in 2006, featured her solo performance in Francis Poulenc's monodrama La voix humaine. A year later she made her Los Angeles Opera debut in Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The recording of the latter won her two Grammys, for Best Opera Recording and Best Classical Album.

She's a straight-ahead thespian, too: She's had a few feature film roles and a recurring role on the small screen in Law and Order: SVU, and she recently concluded a four-year run as Dr. Naomi Bennett on the TV series Private Practice.

In fact, it seems like McDonald is in constant demand. "I'm thrilled by it all," says the 41-year-old performer, speaking from her home in New York. (She was raised in California.) "I feel really, really lucky. I'm grateful to have all these opportunities."

This is McDonald's first concert tour in four years, because she had been so busy with the television show. "I enjoy touring in short spurts," she says. "I have a daughter and a family and I miss being with them. Short tours are fine, but I don't think I could handle anything longer."

Meanwhile Porgy and Bess awaits. It's a new adaptation, by Topdog/Underdog author Suzan-Lori Parks, and it previews in December at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with an official opening on Jan. 12. The show marks McDonald's first foray into Broadway since 2007, when she received a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for her performance in 110 in the Shade. It's also her first time in the role of Bess. "The opera usually runs about four hours," says McDonald, "but it's been condensed down to two and a half. The singing, however, is unchanged."

Yet the music of Porgy and Bess is a far cry from Gershwin standards like "They Can't Take That Away From Me." "I think Gershwin was definitely stretching himself when he took on this project," McDonald says. "There are lots of great show tunes in the opera, but there's also some very heavy singing that goes on."

Whether it's doing Broadway or expanding her classical career, the Juilliard grad chooses to stay flexible. "I don't stick to labels. I try what seems most right for me as an artist. And even though I studied classical, I think I'm more of a musical theater girl."

Hence, McDonald's Nashville gig — a 90-minute program with no intermission — will play to her strong suit. "It's show music from the '30s all the way up to as recently as a year ago," she says. "Generally, it's the American Songbook. There'll be Gershwin, there'll be Cole Porter, there'll be Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb — and newer writers like [The Light in the Piazza composer and lyricist] Adam Guettel." Though she sometimes travels with a trio, the Nashville gig will feature the solo piano accompaniment of her musical director, Andy Einhorn.

This will be McDonald's first visit to Nashville since 1992, when she was on tour with The Secret Garden. "From what I've heard, it's changed quite a bit," she says. "I'm excited to come down there."

Offstage, McDonald is on the advisory board for Broadway Impact, an organization dedicated to marriage equality rights. "That's very important to me," she says. "Some very passionate people in the Broadway community founded this group. They got together and put their money where their mouth is. I believe very much in the cause and do everything I can." 

Tickets for the Nashville concert are gone, but once Ingram Hall is filled, overflow seating will be available in Turner Hall, where the performance can be viewed live on a big screen. McDonald is also scheduled to teach a master class noon to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ingram Hall. For information, call Blair School of Music at 322-7656.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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