Audra McDonald sings through 'Porgy and Bess' mess

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 1:15 p.m. MDT

The creative team, she says, has condensed the four-hour opera into a two-and-one-half-hour musical, eliminated a lot of the repetitiveness and tried to deepen the characters. "We're just trying to focus it more on the characters and the story," she says. "For me in the end, if people are talking about theater, that's a great thing."

The opera-turned-musical tells the story of Porgy, a beggar from the slums, who tries to rescue Bess from her violent lover, Crown, and a drug dealer, Sporting Life.

To play Bess, McDonald has researched drug addiction and the life of women during the 1930s in South Carolina, where the writers based their work. She and Paulus have talked a lot about Bess' past, what gives her joy and why she falls in love with Porgy. Two books also have helped: Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," which follows the fortunes of a black woman living in a small Florida town; and the DuBose Heyward's novel from which the opera is based and which McDonald often consults.

"I carry that thing around like a bible. Mine looks like some college student's textbook. It's highlighted within an inch of its life," she says. "I read a passage from it every night before I go on stage."

When she hits the Carnegie Hall stage, it will mark her 17th appearance there but she still remembers her first. It was the season's opening night concert in 1989 and she sang selections from the "Porgy and Bess" opera with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. "It was thrilling. It was scary. I had never sung that high in public before," she says. "I had a ball and I loved it."

Raised in Fresno, Calif., and trained at The Juilliard School, McDonald is the older of two daughters and is one of those performers who earns raves for whatever she touches. She won three Tony Awards before the age of 30 — for "Carousel," ''Master Class" and "Ragtime" — and a fourth in 2004 for "A Raisin in the Sun."

She has two Grammy Awards, four albums and thinking of a fifth, two Emmy Award nominations and has just finished four seasons on TV playing Dr. Naomi Bennett in ABC's series "Private Practice." She also appears in the new Woody Harrelson film "Rampart," playing a bar fly with a thing for cops who has a steamy love scene with Harrelson.

"It was fun to step out of my comfort zone," she says.

Her decision to join a TV show was done for the same reason. "I've always been afraid of the camera — really afraid. I thought, 'Well, a TV show is certainly a way to learn how to get over that fear,'" she says. "I wanted to be as comfortable in front of a camera as I am on stage, even though they're completely different muscles."

McDonald's Emmy nominations were earned in the HBO version of "Wit" in 2001 and for reprising her Broadway role in "A Raisin in the Sun" in a 2008 made-for-TV adaptation. She was also in the series "Kidnapped" and "The Bedford Diaries."

The commute from New York to the set of "Private Practice" in Los Angeles was punishing and McDonald estimates that she spent 720,000 miles flying back and forth. "The airlines miss me," she says. She was at airports so much that she befriended TSA agents.

Ultimately, the long days away from her 10-year-old daughter, Zoe Madeline — named after McDonald's "Master Class" co-star Zoe Caldwell and actress Madeline Kahn — became too much. The death of McDonald's father in a 2007 plane crash has also put her in a reflective mood.

"I have noticed that a lot of the songs that I've picked this time have been about being in the present and really holding onto to what's important in life," she says. "It forces you to take stock and learn what's most precious. I think I've learned that lesson the hard way losing my dad."

McDonald is an outspoken proponent for marriage equality — her Twitter handle is AudraEqualityMc — and she sits on the advisory board of the gay-rights advocacy organization Broadway Impact.

She may discuss her stance in between songs on her concert tour, even if it upsets her audience. "Sometimes I get quiet reactions and tepid applause. And sometimes I get raucous response to that," she says. "That's also part of who I am. I'm not going to hide that."

Online:

http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/front

http://www.nonesuch.com/artists/audra-mcdonald

Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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