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Audra McDonald returns to Broadway in “Porgy and Bess”

When Audra McDonald made her role debut this past August as the title character in a new musical adaptation of the Gershwins’ folk opera, Porgy and Bess, the critical response was united and euphoric: “Audra McDonald IS Bess,” declared the New York Times. She is “a Bess for the ages,” agreed the Boston Globe, and her performance left the New Yorker’s Hilton Als “breathless.” Now the four-time Tony Award-winning soprano joins co-stars Norm Lewis as Porgy and David Alan Grier as Sporting Life, in the production by Tony-nominated Diane Paulus at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, where the show is currently in previews and will open on January 12, 2012. The production marks McDonald’s first Broadway appearance since 2007, when she received a Drama Desk Award and a sixth Tony nomination for her performance in 110 in the Shade. Those who can’t make it to Broadway this month will be able to catch Audra McDonald on television on December 27, when she appears as part of an all-star tribute to musical theater legend Barbara Cook on CBS’s broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors (9pm ET/CT).
With classic Gershwin numbers like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” the The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is one of the season’s most anticipated revivals. When the new production had its premiere at the American Repertory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the New York Times’s Ben Brantley assessed what set McDonald’s performance apart:
“Ms. McDonald is Bess (or to use the hyper-speak of movie ads, ‘Audra McDonald IS Bess,’) and she can claim rights to full possession of her role, the kind of ownership that transforms a classic character forever…. Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years…. She made me understand Porgy and Bess in a way I hadn’t before…. You just know that you feel what she’s feeling at any given moment…. 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.”
The versatile star scored similar raves with her recent 20-city North American concert tour, in which she presented her trademark mix of show tunes, classic songs from movies, and pieces written expressly for her by leading contemporary composers, with tour highlights including Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, Boston’s Celebrity Series, Washington’s Kennedy Center, and New York’s Carnegie Hall. According to the New York Times, “She maintained an ideal blend of gorgeous sound, emotional engagement, and interpretation. One couldn’t ask a singer for more than that.” The Los Angeles Times agreed: “Audra McDonald is amazing. She becomes the character of every song she sings.… At least four songs struck so deeply at the heart that it was hard to hold back sobs.”
Audra McDonald’s December 4 performance as part of the 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors was a surprise to her longtime friend and mentor Barbara Cook, who was being honored alongside Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Sonny Rollins, and Neil Diamond. Joined on stage by a long list of leading ladies of Broadway—including Kelli O’Hara, Rebecca Luker, Sutton Foster, and Glenn Close, to name but a few—McDonald capped off the musical tribute to the great diva by singing “Till There Was You” from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. (Cook created the role of librarian Marian Paroo in the original 1957 Broadway production.) The Kennedy Center Honors, which played to an audience that included the President and First Lady, will be broadcast on CBS television on December 27 at 9pm ET/CT.
Audra McDonald: upcoming dates
December 17-January 11 (previews)
January 12, 2012 (opening)
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Richard Rodgers Theatre
New York, NY
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© 21C Media Group, December 2011

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