If there's a better way to kick off 2005 than seeing and hearing Audra McDonald in concert, I don't know what it is. From January 6 through 8, the four-time Tony Award winner will inaugurate the winter season of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series at its new home in the Time Warner Center. Backed by a 10-piece band, McDonald will sing the works of popular artists such as Stevie Wonder and contemporary composers including Adam Guettel and Ricky Ian Gordon in the Rose Theater there. "This isn't about me becoming some crossover pop artist," says McDonald. "Instead of bridging young theater composers to people like Kern and Rodgers, I'm bridging them to pop music. And a lot of the songs I've chosen from the pop world are very much story-based; they really could've been written for musicals." McDonald says that she acted on some famous friends' recommendations in putting together her repertoire. "The Elvis Costellosong I'm singing, 'God Give Me Strength,' was suggested by Diana Krall (who happens to be Mrs. Costello). And I was introduced to the work of Laura Nyro by Michael Tilson-Thomas."
McDonald will also conclude the series; March 30-April 1, she will appear with fellow Tony winners Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in a staged concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Passion. This is the same starry trio that performed the show as part of the Ravinia Festival. "I love playing Clara," says McDonald. "She's not just a sweet, pretty thing, which is what some people think just because she has this beautiful music and floats in and out of the piece. She has depth; she's incredibly complex. I've loved discovering her; she's all about what she's willing to give up and not willing to give up." The March 31 performance will be televised as part of the Live From Lincoln Center series, a situation that gives McDonald pause. "Even though we're not doing the nudity, I'm still a little more exposed than everyone else," she says. "So I'll be going to the gym!"
As far as McDonald is concerned, beautiful characters like Clara are much harder to play than unglamorous roles such as Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. "When all I have to be is beautiful and sexy, I just fall on my face," she says with a laugh. She recently took on another "plain Jane" role, Lizzie in 110 in the Shade, in a reading for the Roundabout. "Lizzie is a remarkable character, and this transformation in her life -- which all happens in just one day -- is amazing," McDonald remarks. "It's a very difficult part because there isn't one emotion she doesn't hit. I know they're doing a lot of work on the book, and I'm pretty sure it's going to have a life. If it does, I hope to be involved."
Before that happens, however, we'll see McDonald in Michael John LaChuisa's new musical R Shomon, which she starred in last summer at Williamstown. "I don't know when or where exactly, but we will do it in New York in 2005," she says. "Williamstown was a great place to explore the show and get it fully realized. I finally got to wear costumes, which you just can't do when you're sitting around in a group of chairs."
WITH A SONGBOOK IN MY HEART
Speaking futher of the American Songbook series: This winter lineup is nothing short of incredible. Set to play the brand new Allen Room at the Time Warner Center are Jane Krakowski (February 1), Darius de Haas (February 4), Megan Mullally (February 11), Rebecca Luker (February 12), Ann Hampton Callaway (February 25), Tonya Pinkins (February 26), and the one and only Elaine Stritch (March 4). For more about La Stritch's concert, see the next edition of Loose Lips!
A FEDERAL CASE
If you don't get to catch Audra McDonald in any of the performances detailed above, you have another chance to do so on February 13, when the New Federal Theater will honor the entire cast of A Raisin in the Sun at The Town Hall as part of the company's 35th anniversary celebration. The troupe will also honor Negro Ensemble Company founder Douglas Turner Ward, playwrights Ed Bullins and Micki Grant, director George C. Wolfe, and The Theater Development Fund (TDF).
Co-hosting the star-studded event will be the beautiful and talented Lynn Whitfield, who's currently on the boards in White Chocolate. "I met Woodie King Jr. [the NFT's founder] back in Washington D.C., and he brought me to New York," Whitfield says. "He saw, before anyone else, that I could be the center of a story; he was truly the first person to give me that responsibility and honor. So for Woodie, I will glam it up and make this event as fun as I can. And with the dearth of African-American theater in what we call America, we also need to remember what the New Federal Theater does."
It's not unusual to find New York City Opera star Joyce Castle at Lincoln Center. But these days, she can be found on the stage of the Mitzi Newhouse Theater in Belle Epoque, playing a character based on the great French chanteuse Yvette Guilbert.
While most of the cast has to play musical instruments as well as act in this unusual dance/performance piece, Castle merely has to sing. Is that because she's, shall we say, instrumentally challenged? Not at all! "I play the piano a little," says Castle. "And, this summer, I played the cello in a production of Patience at Glimmerglass Opera. I had learned it as a child and had to revisit it for the show. It was quite an experience, but not one I plan to be having again!"
LADIES BE GOOD
Santa Claus has obviously decided that some of my favorite leading ladies have been very nice this year. Julia Murney will co-star in Ken Weitzman's award winning play Arrangements, January 12-30 at the Atlantic 453's space on West 16th Street....Showtime has given the go-ahead to the series Weeds, which stars Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban mom who decides to grow marijuana to make ends meet....Dame Edna will spend New Year's Eve on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in their production of The Barber of Seville....Kaitlin Hopkins will join the national tour of Disney's On The Record on January 5....Former Tony nominees Mary Testa and Alison Fraser have both been cast in the George Street Theater production of Lend Me a Tenor, which begins February 8.
[To contact Brian Scott Lipton directly, e-mail him at BSL@theatermania.com.]