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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 23, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Lyric Soprano Who Acts

Audra McDonald’s brilliant singing of the brutal letter

scene from Verdi’s "Macbeth" apparently did not impress Maria

Callas, the famed opera diva who rather enjoyed intimidating, if not

downright humiliating, her students. Not one to be easily dismissed,

McDonald confidently stands up to the diva, and finishes the aria

with confidence. This is drama, of course, not real life. It happened

in Terrence McNally’s play "Master Class," in which McDonald

made her Broadway debut and won the first of three Tony awards.

It has been said of this lyric soprano, whose clarity and power has

impressed the critics of both pop and classical music, and her growing

legion of fans, that she has an ability to sing as naturally and

spontaneously

as she speaks. This is a quality possessed by very few of the great

singers, Maria Callas and Judy Garland among them.

In real life, the extraordinarily talented McDonald admits during

our phone conversation, that, despite the accolades she receives,

confidence is something that she lacks. It is hard to believe of this

multi-talented artist who won the coveted Tony award for both

"Carousel"

and "Ragtime." This, as well as a Tony nomination in the title

role of the modern musical "Marie Christine."

McDonald, a 1993 Juilliard graduate, is the main attraction of a big

band show at the State Theater on Saturday April 25. The concert,

under the baton of Ted Sperling, McDonald’s musical director of choice

for years, will feature "Happy Songs" (the title of her latest

album) by such great American songwriters as Harold Arlen, Duke

Ellington,

George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers.

The concert is also a celebration of the joy of motherhood for the

33-year-old McDonald, who talks about her two-year-old daughter Zoe,

born on St. Valentine’s Day. McDonald is married to bass player Peter

Donovan, who only last week played at the State Theater with Patty

Lupone.

"Zoe also likes to sing," she says, "but doesn’t like

to hear me sing. That is unless I sing her songs —

`Twinkle,

Twinkle Little Star’ and the `Sponge Bob’ theme song."

Although Zoe’s favorite songs are not on the State

Theater

program, we talk about the inspiration behind the concert that has

toured the country for the past two years.

"Although I’m singing a popular Gershwin song, `Someone To Watch

Over Me,’ I choose not to do the most well-known songs, but rather

songs that I love, like Ellington’s `On A Turquoise Cloud,’ a song

without lyrics, and a rarity by Arlen, `Ain’t It The Truth.’"

The latter, she explains, was cut from the film "Cabin in the

Sky," only to reappear 20 years later in the Broadway musical

"Jamaica," sung by Lena Horne.

As exemplified in her best-selling albums, "Way Back to

Paradise"

and "How Glory Goes," McDonald likes to share her love for

the lesser-known vocal repertoire. This, as well as championing the

new wave of distinguished theater composers like Jason Robert Brown,

Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa, and Adam Guettel.

"I really want to get their music out there for people to hear.

I think these young composers stand tall upon the shoulders of the

best American theater composers. Their work is challenging and

beautiful,"

she says. She indicates that her strength right now vocally is the

musical theater art songs. Her State Theater program closely resembles

her Carnegie hall solo recital debut of last November.

Speaking of challenges, McDonald says she is working hard towards

becoming a great actor. It’s a goal that seems well within her reach.

Television audiences got their first glimpse of McDonald in CBS’

Peabody

Award-winning "Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters," written

by the McCarter Theater’s Emily Mann. "I played the younger

Bessie,

the temperamental one," says McDonald who worked very closely

with Mann during the filming.

Appearances in television shows, "Annie," with Victor Garber

and Kathy Bates, and in "The Last Debate," with James Garner,

paved the way for the NBC series "Mr. Sterling," in which

she co-stars with Josh Brolin. While the lyric soprano has on her

wish list to do Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess," and Poulenc’s

"La Voix Humane," she has already demonstrated her acting

ability by winning an Emmy nomination for her role in "Wit."

"There are some days when I wish I didn’t have such a strong

ambition

to perform, and I long to be just a mom and a wife," she says.

Raised

in Fresno, California, McDonald was inspired to pursue a musical

career

by her parents, both of whom are musicians. Her Juilliard audition

program, an aria from "Le Nozze di Figaro," and a Samuel

Barber

art song, impressed the judges enough for a callback. Just one week

later she got the news to say goodbye Fresno, hello New York.

I couldn’t resist asking McDonald to name her desert island picks.

How could you not love someone who answers: "Oscar Peterson, Judy

Garland, and `Gone With the Wind.’" And how could you not pick

McDonald’s concert as the entertainment choice for the weekend.

— Simon Saltzman

Audra McDonald, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Big band show features music of Arlon,

Ellington, and Gershwin. $22 to $50. Saturday, April 26, 8 p.m.


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