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Audra McDonald to shine at Schuster 10th anniversary gala

The last time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald came to Dayton, she serenaded voters in the basement of the Montgomery County Administration Building while she observed the early voting process on behalf of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

Some fans recognized her and asked, astonished, “What are you doing here?”

McDonald’s next appearance in Dayton will be far more formal: Headlining the March 1 Gala Concert kicking off the yearlong celebration of The Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center. “It’s an honor,” she said. “Any time an arts center can thrive, it’s truly something to celebrate.”

Four million people have occupied the Schuster Center seats over the past 10 years, and many legendary figures have graced its stage, from Tony Bennett to Diana Ross to the late broadcaster Walter Cronkite, who emceed the inaugural gala on March 1, 2003.

McDonald, too, is coming off a great run. She married actor Will Swenson on Oct. 6, 2012, at their home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Four months earlier, she won the Tony Award for best lead actress in a musical for “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” — one of only three performers, including Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury, to have won five performance Tonys, and the youngest performer, as well as the only African-American, to achieve that distinction. In her acceptance speech, an emotional McDonald recalled a “little girl with a pot belly, Afro puffs, hyperactive and overdramatic,” who found her home in the theater. She turned to her daughter, Zoe Madeline, and proclaimed, “This is an amazing night for Mommy, but Feb. 14, 2001, the day you were born, was the best night ever.”

Ken Neufeld, president and CEO of the Victoria Theatre Association, said that McDonald’s name was at the top of a very short list of candidates for the 10th anniversary Gala Concert. “She spans the appeal of not only our Broadway audience but our audience for the Philharmonic and the Opera, and she’s a great stage performer,” Neufeld explained. “It should be a very magical evening. We’re very lucky to see an artist at such a high level in her career. She’s clearly in the zone.”

McDonald has performed with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra twice before — at the Fraze Pavilion in 2000 and in May 2005, as part of the DPO Superpops Series. “She’s one of the really great voices — and great actors — of our time,” observed DPO conductor Neal Gittleman. “There aren’t many performers today who have her mix of charisma, stage presence and artistry. We’re lucky to have her coming for the Schuster Center anniversary celebration and her set list for this show is filled with great songs — some that everyone knows and many lesser-known classics from great Broadway shows and Hollywood films.”

McDonald, who is known for her gorgeous soprano voice, also has enjoyed an extensive television career. She recently was named host of The PBS series “Live from Lincoln Center,” and she starred as Dr. Naomi Bennett in the ABC television series “Private Practice.” Her versatility, she admits, can be a curse as well as a blessing: “It’s very, very difficult to juggle all those roles, and my agents are constantly pulling their hair out. I do it because of the opportunity for growth and creative experimentation.”

McDonald was only a year out of Juilliard School when she skyrocketed to stardom on the Broadway stage, winning a Tony in 1994 for her performance as Carrie Snow in the revival of “Carousel” at Lincoln Center Theater. Some directors might not have cast a black actress in the role, she said, but director Nicholas Hytner didn’t see such barriers. Nearly 20 years later, too few directors are open to non-traditional casting, McDonald lamented: “Ninety percent of the African-Americans on Broadway are portraying African-Americans.”

She encourages young people to pursue their dreams of life in the theater. After all, her own parents, while highly supportive, never considered her musical aspirations a ticket to stardom. “They saw it as a way to channel my energy and dramatic tendencies,” she said. “So, absolutely, say yes to yourself. Get involved with your high school play or the community theater. The experience of the theater is the same, whether it’s at the local Y or the Metropolitan.”

McDonald has become a passionate advocate for marriage equality and for gay rights. She sees it as the civil rights movement of our time. She’s making Broadway history, but a mere two generations ago it was illegal for her great-uncle to marry his wife, a white woman. “Somebody marched for me,” she explained. “I have certainly been a beneficiary of the civil rights movement, and I want to do my part.”

Despite her amazing success, McDonald never takes her audience for granted. “Every night, you strive to top yourself,” she said. “You need to surprise and delight your audience.”

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