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Pop culture, entertainment & all things Fresno

Audra update: Remembering her childhood with the Wall Street Journal

Fresno’s Audra McDonald — the history-making Tony Award champ — offers some childhood memories in a first-person account told to the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers. Here’s a great anecdote:

On the driveway, I used to hit a tennis ball against the garage door pretending to be Donna Summer ’s daughter no one knew about. On my bedroom walls, I had pictures of Broadway shows, like “Dreamgirls,” and photos of Patti LuPone. I loved her. But the best part of my room was the tiny walk-in closet. When my cousins came over, my sister would join us and we’d all put on shows. The closet was backstage, where you got ready. When the show began, you’d bust out through the doors to perform.

McDonald talks about her introduction to Good Company Players, and the article is accompanied by several early photos of her in GCP.

Pictured: Audra at 16 in a production of “Evita.” Can anyone tell me who any of the other actors in the photo are?

Release ‘Day’: Hear Audra’s ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’

If you aren’t lucky enough to get back to New York by Sept. 21 to catch Audra McDonald in her historic Tony Award-winning performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” you can at least listen to the Broadway cast album, which was released today. When I saw the show in May I wrote:

McDonald, to me, has one of the most instantly recognizable voices I’ve ever heard. Give me two seconds of her with almost any song and I’ll snap: “Audra.” Yet in Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play, which recounts a night of the life of Billie Holiday near the end of her life, McDonald burrows into her character with such intense authenticity (and does crazy-screwy things with her voice that completely tamps down her operatic tendencies into a bluesy twang) that I simply forgot I wasn’t in the presence of Billie Holiday herself.

Here’s the show’s Facebook page.

Facebook photo of the day: backstage with Audra

OK, OK. I promise that this is my last Audra post of the month.

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Fresno State theater professor J. Daniel Herring writes:

Here I am with the 6-time Tony Award winner after her breathtaking performance as Lady Day. Audra’s performance in LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL transcends all we know about the art of acting.

Audra responds to criticism of Tony speech

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In her Tony Awards acceptance speech Sunday night, Audra McDonald thanked her parents for going against the advice of doctors and not putting her on ADHD medication, steering her toward the Good Company Players Junior Company instead. She took some flak for that statement yesterday in TIME magazine from a parent of a hyperactive son. McDonald offered a response today. She apologizes if she offended the mother, and she explains her parents’ decision:

After months of increasingly frustrating, painful moments watching their child struggle, and after talking with psychologists and my teachers — but not yet having the benefit of decades of research, media and social discourse on what was still a relatively new medication — my parents happened to attend a performance at a local dinner theater. Although my family was a very musical one — my dad was a high school music teacher, my grandmothers both taught piano, and, as you yourself were kind enough to bring up in your letter, my aunts used to sing at various black churches in California in the ’50s and ’60s — we were not theatergoers.

That night, at that theater in Fresno, California, my mother and father saw a troupe of young children performing in a pre-show cabaret. A lightbulb went off in their heads and they decided to encourage me to audition to be a member of this troupe, in hopes that it might be a good outlet for my energy, an oasis for my emotions and possibly a place for me to build some desperately needed confidence.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Audra’s big night

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Sure, she’s already won enough Tony awards to build a whole separate wing for them in her house. But this coming Sunday night is still a big one for Fresno’s Audra McDonald. If she wins a sixth Tony award, this time for her indelible performance in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” McDonald will become a record-holder — the most regular Tony awards won by a performer. Ever. In history. Plus, if she picks up the award for leading actress in a play, she’ll become the first performer to win Tonys in all four possible acting categories.

We’re justly proud of McDonald in Fresno. And I’m proud that The Fresno Bee is featuring her in her very own pull-out full-page poster in Sunday’s paper. That’s an honor usually reserved for sports stars, and I’m just tickled that someone from the theater is getting that kind of treatment.

There’s lots more Tony coverage in Sunday’s Bee, including my take on her performance in “Lady Day” and a recap of some of the other Tony-nominated shows I saw in a recent trip. (I’ve already posted an extended version on the Beehive.) And on Sunday night, I’ll be Tweeting the Tonys “live” — to the West Coast feed of the televised show. You’ll be able to follow along right here on the Beehive.

The whole West Coast tape delay thing is kind of problematic, but I guarantee a spoiler-free experience — at least on the Beehive and my Twitter feed. (If you really don’t want to know who wins before watching the show in this time zone, stay away from all digital media, including The Bee’s home page, because wire feeds will come in automatically.)

In the meantime, check out Audra’s poster on Sunday — and think good thoughts as we find out whether history will be made.

Can Audra win Tony No. 6?

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The Tony Award nominations were released this morning, and as everyone expected, Audra McDonald — Fresno’s favorite Broadway star — is in the race for best leading actress in a play. If she wins, she’ll make history, as Patrick Healy writes in the New York Times:

With her latest Tony nomination for best actress in a play, in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” Ms. McDonald could become the first performer to win six Tonys for acting; Julie Harris is the only performer with six, though one is a special lifetime achievement award. Ms. McDonald, 43, faces some tough competition, however; also nominated are Tyne Daly (“Mothers and Sons”), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (“A Raisin in the Sun”), Cherry Jones (“The Glass Menagerie”), and Estelle Parsons (“The Velocity of Autumn”). Ms. Jones is seen as especially formidable, not least because she, like Ms. McDonald, is a favorite of Tony voters, having won two best actress Tonys.

Also notable: If Ms. McDonald wins, she will become the first person ever to win a Tony in each of the four acting categories.

She faces stiff competition: Tyne Daly in “Mothers and Sons,” LaTanya Richardson Jackson in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Cherry Jones in “The Glass Menagerie” and Estelle Parsons in “The Velocity of Autumn.”

In other Tony news, I know of two very happy Tony followers this morning: former Fresnans Anthony and Ashley Taylor, who have been singing the praises of the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” for months. The show received 10 nominations, including best musical, the most of any nominee.

Audra update: Stellar reviews for ‘Lady Day’

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Another Audra McDonald opening on Broadway, another round of stellar reviews. McDonald’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” opened Sunday at the Circle in the Square theater for a limited run, and critics showered Fresno’s favorite Broadway star with raves. I liked this one from the Los Angeles Times:

When one recalls Holiday’s sublimely ruined sound at the end of her career, the period in which Lanie Robertson’s concert drama is set, one doesn’t think of McDonald’s soaring, Juilliard-burnished soprano, a gold medal voice still in its athletic prime.

But from the moment McDonald takes the microphone, a metamorphosis more striking than any in Ovid occurs. Gone is the shimmering operatic prowess that powered through “Summertime” in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” the last of McDonald’s Tony-winning performances. In its place are Holiday’s distinctive jazz timing and idiosyncratic phrasing, qualities as singular as fingerprints.

I’ve always thought that McDonald had such a distinctive voice that I could recognize her signature style in a nano-second, but, once again, she rises to the occasion.

Here’s what the New York Times has to say. Playbill.com has a roundup of major reviews. And Broadway.com has a great photo gallery from opening night, including McDonald accepting flowers, above.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” plays through June 1, so plan those New York trips soon.

Audra update

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Local fans already know that Audra McDonald will be performing Friday at the L.J. Williams Theatre in Visalia. Not long after that, she will be back on Broadway. Playbill reports:

Five-time Tony Award-winning actressAudra McDonald will return to Broadway as Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s play with music, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which will begin performances March 25 at Circle in the Square.

The 1959-set play, which centers on one of Holiday’s final public appearances, takes place in Philadelphia four months before the singer’s death. The 90-minute show includes such songs as “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Foolin’ Myself,” “Don’t Explain,” “Somebody’s On My Mind,” “Taint Nobody’s Bizness,” “Baby Doll” and more.

The New York Times calls the late-breaking announcement “an unexpected return to Broadway.”

For more on the Friday concert: Here’s an Audra interview from a Gannett writer that ran in the Visalia Times-Delta.

Audra McDonald is coming to Visalia

Audra McDonald fans, prepare yourself for a welcome local dose of Fresno’s most famous Broadway star. McDonald will perform Feb. 28 at the L.J. Williams Theatre in Visalia.

She last appeared locally in 2011 at Fresno’s Warnors Theatre to open the Fresno Grand Opera season. Her schedule has been packed since then, of course, including a Tony Award-winning run in “Porgy and Bess,” hosting duties on “Live from Lincoln Center” and preparing for her upcoming role as Mother Abbess in NBC’s Dec. 5 live production of “The Sound of Music.”

Tickets for the Visalia event are $30-$60 and go on sale midnight Thursday, just in time for all the Black Friday hoopla. The event is a benefit for Hands in the Community. Details: ticketfly.com/event/429845

Twitter photo of the day: Fake nuns in training

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A Retweet From Audra McDonald’s Twitter feed:

A buncha fake nuns at a real nunnery. @SoundofMusic cast members at Saint Walburga monastery in Elizabeth, NJ.

McDonald will be touting the advantages of mountain climbing in NBC’s upcoming live production Dec. 5 of “The Sound of Music.” She plays the Mother Abbess, who of course sings “Climb Every Mountain.”

Fres-Know: Audra shuts down Tony Awards

The award for best Tony Awards closing number goes to: Neil Patrick Harris and five-time Tony winner (and Fresnan) Audra McDonald in a reworked version of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” [Audra McDonald's Facebook]

Just a Peach: The much-loved Masumoto family’s peaches take center stage with the release Tuesday of their new book, “The Perfect Peach.” [The Bee]

Not a joke: Fresno pair featured on TLC’s “My Teen is Pregnant & So Am I.” [The Bee]

A rotten ranking:  Lots of so-called national surveys that give Fresno low rankings are a little silly. (Remember when we were declared America’s drunkest city?) But a new one from the Trust for Public Land, which lists us as the lowest ranked of the nation’s top 40 cities in terms of citywide parks systems, is just plain sobering. Politicians, are you paying attention? [Atlantic magazine]

Once upon a time: Create your own “Modern Fairytale.” [The Germ]

Signing off: CBS47 anchor and reporter Mike Scott starts his last week before retirement. [Mike Scott on Twitter]

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Audra’s new album comes out Tuesday

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The New York Times gives us a video sneak peek of Audra McDonald’s new album, “Go Back Home,” which comes out Tuesday. (It’s her first solo album in seven years!) McDonald invited the Times to her New York State country home, where she played Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V.” She accompanied herself on a piano that was given to her by her parents as a high school graduation present.

If you went to McDonald’s last Fresno concert, in 2011, you’ll remember she sang the same song in what became the most emotional moment in the show. I wrote at the time:

Without announcing her next song, McDonald took a seat at the piano to play and sing Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V,’ an introspective piece about the wide open sky. Afterward, she explained that she’s always wanted to overcome the fear of playing the piano in public. Her father, the noted Fresno educator Stan McDonald, used to encourage her to do that, telling her she needed to overcome that fear. He died four years ago in one of the solo experimental planes he loved to fly. “So that was for my dad,” she said.

According to her label, Nonesuch Records, many of the selections on “Go Back Home” are by composers with whom McDonald has long been associated (Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim, among others)  And McDonald continues her tradition of championing works by an emerging generation of composers, represented on this recording by Adam Gwon, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, and Will Reynolds.

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Tweet of the day

Because a new album by Audra McDonald is always, always, ALWAYS a big deal:

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From Playbill.com:

“Go Back Home,” the fifth studio album from five-time Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald, will be released May 21 from Nonesuch Records. The title is inspired by the plaintive Kander and Ebb song from the Tony-nominated musical The Scottsboro Boys, which is featured on the album. The new release promises a selection of composers who figure into McDonald’s career, including Adam GuettelMichael John LaChiusa,Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and Stephen Sondheim. McDonald will also bring her voice to the work of new songwriters including Adam Gwon, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, and Will Reynolds. The album is produced by Doug Petty and has musical direction by Andy Einhorn, who conducted the ensemble.

Audra news: Will she play movie version of Aretha Franklin?

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There’s long been talk about Fresno fave Audra McDonald playing Aretha Franklin in the proposed upcoming biopic about the famed singer. In 2012, the Huffington Post reported that Franklin had added McDonald to her wish list of actors contending for the role.

On Wednesday, Audra as Aretha perhaps came closer to a reality with a report in the New York Daily News that McDonald may soon take on the role.

From Broadway World’s Confidenti@l:

Franklin herself tells Confidenti@l, “We are thinking of Audra McDonald, who just won a Tony on Broadway. The question, where Audra is concerned, is whether or not she can get over into soul, not Broadway.” The singer also revealed that Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson is also being considered for the part.

What do you think? One Broadway commenter writes:

Audra can play almost anything but would hate to see her screeching in a fat suit. WRONG.

Part of me agrees, but another part thinks that McDonald is so talented she can pull it off.

Tweet of the day (Audra style)

It’s one thing to complain about an airline. But to belt it out in in the voice of a five-time Tony Award winner — well, that’s gotta hurt, Delta Airlines.

 

Back in the Hive

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I’m back after a glorious three-week break, most of which I spent in Costa Rica. Amazing country. I dragged my camera, three lenses and tripod all over the country and was in amateur-photographer bliss. (Above, one of many tropical flower pics I took. I’ll post a selected online gallery soon.)

I was able to get off the grid — and completely out of the Fresno groove. I love our local arts scene, but it’s nice to take a break once in a while. My one regret: not getting to write about Audra McDonald’s big Tony win for “Porgy and Bess.”

Now that I’m back, I’ve been catching up. This coming weekend I plan to see “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the first show in the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s summer season. On the arts scene, I hope you didn’t miss Mike Oz’s story about the “Occupy Zeitgeist” exhibition at Gallery 25, which continues through July 1. And I didn’t have a chance to plug my Sunday Spotlight story on the big Clement Renzi exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum, which ran after I left for vacation.

Oh, and my award for Most Annoying Letter to the Editor while I was gone is an easy pick. It was this gem from Janet Lynn Ballinger:

Congratulations to Audra McDonald and her new Tony. It amuses me that Fresno still takes credit for her. We are just fortunate that she drifted by on her way to the top. Well done!

So spending her formative years at Good Company Players and the Roosevelt School of the Arts was just drifting by?

In the meantime, I’m getting back in the groove. “Spring Awakening” opens in just a week and a half!

Fres-Know: Audra McDonald rules!

YAY FRESNO: Audra McDonald wins another Tony, makes history [The Bee]

SAD: Dad dies trying to save drowning son in Kings River. [The Bee]

COOL: Warren Armstrong in D.C. to interview President Obama. [ABC30]

SPORTS: Margie Wright’s legacy celebrated. [The Bee]

MMM BEER: A look at Fresno’s craft brew scene. [The Bee]

CROSS YOUR FINGERS: Interesting raffle from The Grizzlies. [Business Journal]

ARE YOU HUNGRY? More for the ‘Fresno Eateries to Try’ list. [The Cured Ham]

LISTEN: Local podcast jumps into that conversation too. [The View Looks Good]

ANGRY YELPER O’ THE DAY: Cracked Pepper needs e-mail reservations. [Yelp]

GOOD READ: Day trips around Central California. [The Full Moxie]

WTF FRESNO: Teens fighting and an irate mom. Not safe for humanity. [YouTube]

ValleyWho Central: Can Ryan Beatty be stopped?

The semi-finals of ValleyWho come to a close in four hours — go vote! — and despite even his own best efforts to sway his minions, rising teen pop star Ryan Beatty continues to look unstoppable. Even against local hero and literary icon William Saroyan.

On Monday, Beatty himself took to Twitter and said he was voting for Saroyan. But would his fans listen? So far, it sounds like the Team Beatty isn’t emulating its leader.

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In the other matchup: I hear things are tight between Audra McDonald and Chris Colfer. Once again, it could come down to just a handful of votes, so be sure to cast yours before 8 p.m.

I’ve know at least a few people are pulling for a Saroyan-McDonald final, but what if it ends up being Colfer-Beatty, who I believe, between the two of them, have a whopping 37 years on this planet?

ValleyWho Central: Our final four is set

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What was once a tournament of 64 ValleyWho contenders is now down to four: Audra McDonald, William Saroyan, Chris Colfer and Ryan Beatty. Voting is live now and runs until 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The final matchup will be announced Wednesday morning and voting will last until 8 p.m. Thursday. The ultimate winner will be announced Saturday at Beehive Birthday at Rotary Playland. Remember: We hid the results for the final two rounds to keep y’all surprised.

THE MATCHUPS
(1) William Saroyan vs. (10) Ryan Beatty
(1) Audra McDonald vs. (1) Chris Colfer

ABOUT THAT FINAL FOUR
It’s an interesting mix, I think, that will surely put generations at odds. Represented is the past (Saroyan), the present (Audra and Colfer) and the future (Beatty). Our final four is diverse in that includes an author, actors of TV and stage and a singer. We’ve got a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Tony winner, a Golden Globe winner and a teenager with 200K+ Twitter followers.

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ValleyWho: The battle of 8

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Voting for Round 4 — our Only 8! battle — is now open and runs until 8 p.m. Sunday. Go vote. Even if you haven’t voted before, you can still jump in with your vote. Your votes matter. Just ask the ValleyHopefuls who lost by a matter of votes in previous rounds.

Let’s analyze.

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ValleyWho: OK, so now who?

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As we approach tonight’s 8 p.m. deadline to vote in the ValleyWho Sweet 16 round (go here!), I thought it would be fun to ask some of the now-eliminated ValleyHopefuls who they’re supporting in the competition.

Here’s what they had to say:

STEFANI BOOROOJIAN: “Honestly, I’m pulling for Richard Kiel. What is so bizarre is that I had scheduled an interview with him the day this contest was revealed. He is so genuine and nice and was concerned about beating me. Needless to say, he squashed me. But that’s OK, I still want him to win.”

ANTHONY TAYLOR: “I’m picking Audra McDonald to win this whole thing. She doesn’t need my support, but she’s a great representative of what I believe is one of Fresno’s greatest assets: the theatre and arts scene here. Plus, she’s from the Peach Regional like me so she’s got cred there too.”

RAY APPLETON: “There is only ONE name. William Saroyan. How could it be anybody else? Really!!!!!”

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ValleyWho Central: How sweet are our 16?

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Voting for Round 3 — our Sweet 16 — is now open and runs until 8 p.m. Thursday. Get those votes in. If you’re new to this tournament, that’s OK. Your vote still matters. New or old, head to the bracket to vote for your faves.

Much analysis below.

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ValleyWho Central: First-day buzz

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With voting under way to crown our favorite local icon in The Beehive’s ValleyWho March Madness-style bracket game, mental images abound: Anthony Taylor gripping Kevin Federline in a pretty solid headlock; Ray Appleton getting his behind kicked in the ring by Jennifer Alcorn; Chris Colfer caught in a life-and-death struggle with a California Raisin.

Of course, voting continues in the ValleyWho contest’s first round through 8 p.m. Sunday, so there’s plenty of opportunity for front-runners to fade and early stumblers to come from behind. In the meantime, think of this post as a low-rent version of one of those ESPN March Madness shows (minus the generous clothing allowances for the talent) in which we offer a mix of updates, news notes, expert commentary and blatant campaigning by individual Beehivers for their favorites. Here goes:

EARLY TRENDS

THE VOTES: At the top of the heap are Audra McDonald in the Peach Regional (the Broadway star and No. 1 seed is crushing local pitchman Crazy Bernie with 91% of the vote) and No. 6 seed Al Radka in the Raisin Regional (the radio/TV icon is pounding annoying “Bachelorette” contestant Kasey Kahl with 90%).

Compare that to the two tightest races: Channel 30 anchor Graciela Moreno has been trading the lead all day with poet Gary Soto in the Almond Regional, while Olympic snowboarder Andy Finch is locked in a tight battle with author David Mas Masumoto in the same conference.

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