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The eclectic artistry of Audra McDonald


By age 9, Audra McDonald was singing dinner theater in Fresno. By 17, she was improvising her audition for the Juilliard School in New York. By 22, she took Broadway by storm, winning her first of five Tony awards for her role in "Carousel." And by now, she's doing pretty much whatever she wants -#8212; whether it be stage, television, film or musical recording.

If you flipped on the television during the holidays, you probably saw the 43-year-old soprano in "The Sound of Music Live!" on NBC or in the "Christmas at Rockefeller Center" celebration on NBC or in the new "Six by Sondheim" documentary on HBO.

When the New York Times called her "the foremost musical theater performer of her generation," it was an understatement.

McDonald, who never pursued formal acting training, has been a fixture on the television show "Private Practice" and in recurring roles in "Law and Order" and "Kidnapped."

Her latest CD, "Go Back Home," spotlights interpretations of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein classics and more contemporary songs by Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel.

Before McDonald makes her Green Music Center debut Saturday night, here are the Top 5 things you should know about her:

1. McDonald's Green Center show is being featured as part of the LGBT mixer, "A Night OUT at Weill Hall." The package includes pre-show party, post-show dessert and drinks and plenty of photo ops. McDonald has been an outspoken advocate of same-sex marriage, with active roles in Broadway Impact, Freedom to Marry and NOH8 campaigns. She's also a big supporter of animal adoption and the nonprofit Eleventh Hour Rescue, which saves dogs from being euthanized.

2. McDonald was recently named musician of the year by the Musical America journal. It's yet another accolade in the long list of awards she's won over the years. Her five Tony awards place her in the rarefied circle of most wins for acting or performance roles along with Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris. She's won two Grammys for best opera recording and best classical album, also receiving Emmy nominations for roles in "Wit" and "A Raisin in the Sun."

3. Backed by a jazz ensemble at the Green Music Center, she'll dive into show tunes and soundtrack classics that span her career roles and several songs featured on her new album, "Go Back Home." If it's anything like her concert last October in Los Angeles, look for classics like "Over the Rainbow," "Summertime," more recent songs like "Go Back Home" from the musical "The Scottsboro Boys," and even a turn at the piano for Adam Guettel's "Migratory V," which she dedicated to her late father, who made all those childhood piano lessons possible.

As the Los Angeles Times put it: "When she sings, she becomes the overarching character of the song, adjusting her tone and timbre the way a great actor adjusts her accent. ... Her rapport with the audience was instant, as though she were reuniting with old friends."

4. When she's not acting or singing, McDonald occasionally lends her voice to audio books, narrating Alice Walker's "By The Light of My Father's Smile," Connie Briscoe's "A Long Way From Home" and Rita Dove's "Second-Hand Man."

With or without a script, she's always had good banter on stage. "I love to talk to the audience," she said in an interview with the New York Times. "I really just enjoy communicating and telling them what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. I like to educate them, you know, you want to entertain and to educate."

5. McDonald's influence can already be seen in the next generation of singers. Lea Michele of "Glee" recently paid tribute:

"Audra is probably the best singer in the world -#8212; up there with Barbra (Streisand). I don't think she has any idea what an influence she had on me. I would say 80 percent of my singing knowledge came from Audra," said Michele, who was 8 years old when she was cast in the Broadway production of "Ragtime" with McDonald. "How to warm up. How to breathe. How to take care of my voice. All of my beliefs are because Audra instilled them in me. And I'm forever grateful to her."

Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@beckmediaproductions.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.