Reigning star of stages and screens (large and small) Audra McDonald, who plays at Campbell Hall on November 30, has thrown herself into a multitude of character roles by now and worked her way in and out of fictional wardrobes. She has distinguished herself in such musical theater classics as Carousel, Ragtime, Porgy and Bess, and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (a Grammy winner, with the LA Opera). She has been a much-appreciated repeat visitor to America’s living room in such TV series as Private Practice and the “goods,” The Good Wife and The Good Fight.
McDonald has also braved the fine art of embodying such reality-based icons as Maria Callas (in the play Master Class) and Billie Holiday (in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill) — both garnering Tony awards — and as Aretha Franklin in the 2021 biopic Respect.
And yet, despite her gift for character building and inhabiting, one of the most impressive forums for McDonald is when she gets to play Audra McDonald, singer and concertizer.
“I find that, in concertizing, it’s a very vulnerable way of performing,” she told me in an interview. “There is no specific character to hide behind. As you go into each song, you can go into the character of each song, but for the most part, it’s just you up there. I can’t pretend to be anybody else when I’m up there. I like to keep it as intimate and as personal as possible, too.”
McDonald’s Campbell Hall show, hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures, marks a welcome return to a city where she had her concert debut back in 2014, at the Granada. In that season, she was just coming off her acclaimed Lady Day run, poised for another Tony statue and later headed for a run in London’s West End. At that time, she had also just released the superb album Go Back Home, part of a surprisingly lean discography under her name, with only eight titles since her 1998 recording debut, Way Back to Paradise.
Then again, musical theater was her guiding star as an artist, starting at the ripe age of nine. The Berlin-born McDonald was living in Fresno with her family when her parents introduced her to a dinner theater company with a pre-show cabaret attached. A future star was born there.
“They would bring young kids to perform in the cabaret,” she recalled, “and my parents thought that might be something I might be able to blossom in, and that I might find some joy in that. I became a part of that company when I was nine and was with them until I graduated from high school and went off to Juilliard. That was how it happened.”
At the outset of her now long and expansive career, she comments, “my plan was that I wanted to be on Broadway. Everything else that has happened has just been luck and great fortune. I would say that I’m curious about all the different mediums of performing art. I want to grow into being a better actress, a better singer, a better communicator, a better interpreter. For me, that’s what drives my artistic choices and helps me become that.
“I might not be the same thing at any given moment. There are some days or some moments or months or periods of my life when I will concertize more. Sometimes, I really want to work on a specific character and role and get into excavating a character, as it were, in a play or a musical. Sometimes, I want to work on something really operatic.
“It’s a constant sort of curiosity about the evolution of an artwork.”
Audra McDonald performs at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 30 at UCSB Campbell Hall. For more information, see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu/events-tickets/events/23-24/audra-mcdonald/.
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