PROVINCETOWN — Anyone who saw Audra McDonald’s performance as Bess in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ whether at the American Repertory Theater in the autumn of 2011 or during the subsequent Broadway run, is unlikely to ever forget the experience.
Though the stakes obviously weren’t as high, something of the same could be said for McDonald’s appearance here Sunday evening at the Art House. Over a galvanizing 90 minutes, she pulled out all the stops, performing songs that ranged across the emotional spectrum while showcasing the vocal majesty that has helped McDonald win five Tony Awards, including one for best actress in a musical for “Porgy and Bess.’’
McDonald covered a lot of ground conversationally as well, guided by Seth Rudetsky, host of the Broadway @ The Art House series. She talked about everything from the issue of race on Broadway to the mixed blessing celebrity can be, especially when you star on a TV show. (She played Dr. Naomi Bennett on “Private Practice,’’ a medical drama on ABC.)
She proved to be an engaging storyteller with a ready wit, which flashed when she discussed her performances of Stephen Sondheim songs, and how anxious singers are to please the legendary composer. “If he likes something, he’ll send you a note,’’ she said of Sondheim, then added dryly: “And if he doesn’t, he sends a note to The New York Times.’’ It was a reference to the scorching letter Sondheim sent to the Times in August 2011, objecting to what he saw as wrongheaded revisions to the Gershwin opera and castigating McDonald, director Diane Paulus, and adapter Suzan-Lori Parks.
McDonald indicated that she holds no grudge against Sondheim, saying “that’s bygones’’ and delivering a heartfelt rendition of “Moments in the Woods,’’ from the composer’s “Into the Woods.’’
Illness forced McDonald to miss some performances during the Broadway run of “Porgy and Bess,’’ prompting grumbling from disappointed audience members. At the Art House, McDonald noted that Bess was originally conceived as an operatic role, and its “full-throttle singing, nonstop singing’’ was not meant to be performed eight times a week, not to mention the role’s extreme physical and emotional demands. “You can’t sing the role if you’re sick,’’ she said. “But the producers say, ‘If you don’t perform, we lose money.’ ”
Part of what makes Rudetsky’s series so absorbing are the backstage stories he coaxes out of his glittering guests. For instance, McDonald described a prank pulled on her by fellow cast members in 1998’s “Ragtime’’ as the show’s run went on and on (it ran two years). In one of her Tony-winning roles, McDonald played Sarah, a young woman killed by Secret Service agents who erroneously think she is trying to assassinate the vice president. A subsequent scene required McDonald to be onstage in an open coffin. Other cast members would sometimes put a beeper in the coffin, then call that number. It required all of McDonald’s professional restraint to retain a corpse-like stillness while the beeper vibrated in the coffin.
In a more serious vein, McDonald described how African-American cast members in “Ragtime’’ made their voices heard to effect a change in the musical. Though its creators — songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and book writer Terrence McNally — had crafted “Ragtime’’ as a strong message against racism, the actors were concerned that black characters in the show didn’t speak back enough against the epithets hurled by white characters. So the creative team added dialogue, spoken by an African-American character, that clearly signaled the entire black community’s defiance.
McDonald acknowledged that she encountered skepticism in 1994 when she played Carrie Pipperidge, a role usually played by white actresses, in a Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.’’ She went on to win her first Tony in the part. Growing up in Fresno, Calif., McDonald was aware how pervasive racism was in the city. When she was cast in the lead role of “Evita’’ at age 16 in a dinner theater production, alternating in the part with a white actress, customers would call the box office and ask, “Is the white one or the black one on tonight?’’
McDonald delivered a spine-tingling performance of “Go Back Home,’’ from the Kander & Ebb musical “The Scottsboro Boys,’’ in which black youths imprisoned after being falsely accused of rape give voice to their dream of freedom and returning home.
McDonald, who last year married musical theater performer Will Swenson, showcased her funny side in a song about the challenges of being a single woman, racing through an uproarious version of “Baltimore’’ (music by Zina Goldrich, lyrics by Marcy Heisler), in which the protagonist recalls her mother’s advice to “avoid REO Speedwagon-loving, Christopher Walken-imitating thespians originally from Baltimore.’’ She amusingly spoofed her own dramatic intensity with Gabriel Kahane’s “Craigslistlieder,’’ lending the distinctive Audra touch to preposterous lines like: “You looked sexy even when you were having a seizure/It was in the hair care section of the Vancouver Walgreen’s.’’
McDonald wiped her eyes after singing Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon.’’ She spoke somberly of Sept. 11, 2001, describing how she would not, could not, let her 9-month-old daughter out of her arms all through that terrible day. Then she launched into a beautifully stirring performance of “Make Someone Happy’’ (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green).
The song’s concluding lines had a special resonance, being sung by someone who has that quintet of Tonys yet is still only 43: “Fame, if you win it/Comes and goes in a minute/Where’s the real stuff in life you cling to?/Love is the answer/Someone to love is the answer/Once you’ve found them/Build your world around them/Make someone happy/Make just someone happy/And you will be happy too.’’
The smile on McDonald’s face at the end suggested she’s found that out for herself.