|Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday|
Before I wind up waving my hand among the “me, too” crowd, let me jump in here to state unequivocally that Audra McDonald is giving the performance of a lifetime as singer Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill, now on view at what will undoubtedly be a completely sold-out run at Circle In The Square.
Ms. McDonald doesn’t merely suggest the persona of Billie Holiday, in the way, say, that Tracie Bennett poured herself into her portrayal of a barely-clinging-on Judy Garland a couple of years back in End Of The Rainbow.
And it is not just that she has managed to exchange her crystal singing voice for that of the great Lady Day—a tour-de-force of otherworldly proportions that in itself would be reason enough to beg, borrow, or steal a ticket.
She totally is Billie, performing in a song-and-conversation evening at the modest South Philly club of the title, the kind of place where she was relegated to singing toward the end of her career and her life. (She died in 1959 at the age of 44, which is just about Ms. McDonald’s age right now).
During the 90-minute intermissionless performance, Audra as Billie becomes, as she says, increasingly “juiced” while singing 15 full and partial numbers and interrupting the proceedings to tell stories from her decidedly downtrodden life of neglect, abuse, booze, and heroin to her audience—those sitting close at hand at one of the 21 club tables (and, yes, there is a premium price to pay for these seats) and the rest of us in regular theater seats arranged in a horseshow around the stage. (I hasten to note that I sat in economy class and could see and hear just fine, but if you’ve got the money you might want to spring for one of the club tables to be in close proximity to stunning theatrical genius).
In any other hands but those of its star, Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill might easily fall into the mode of the typical bio-play, a form that is incredibly difficult to pull off without turning into a live, exposition-driven version of a book-on-tape. No names, but there are at least a couple of these running on and off Broadway right now.
Under the spot-on and unobtrusive direction by Lonny Price, I have never seen the genre treated with so much attention to detail as to make it virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. For a sheer nerve-racking experience, watching Audra/Billie pulling herself through a performance eclipses by light years that of attending the current revival of Cabaret—which places its audience into the mise-en-scène of pre-World War II Berlin.
Yes, I am saying that watching Audra McDonald as the living-on-the-edge Billie Holiday is far more disturbing than being surrounded by Nazis at the Kit Kat Klub.
During the evening, Ms. McDonald, who is wearing a snazzy Esosa-designed gown matching the color of the gardenia in her hair, is not alone on stage. She is joined by a fine jazz trio, led by Shelton Becton (doubling as Billie’s accompanist and “nanny” Jimmy Powers) on piano, Clayton Craddock on drums, and George Farmer on bass. The trio performs a solo number when Billie briefly staggers offstage (to pull herself together, or perhaps to shoot up?), but if you plan to arrive 20 minutes or so before the official starting time, you’ll be treated to a pre-show set by the band as well.
Ms. McDonald performs memorable songs from the Billie Holiday songbook, including “God Bless the Child,” which she tells us she penned for her mother; “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” which nonchalantly brushes off the experience of being in an abusive relationship; and the wrenching “Strange Fruit,” that conjures up images of lynchings.
Between numbers, Audra/Billie talks about her mother (“The Duchess”), her great musical influences Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and others in her life, whose images are projected on the wall behind her.
Many of the stories she tells are harrowing—both the ones of her sad personal life and those of the many experiences of racism she faced while touring around the country. It made me think of the line from Ntozake Shange’s masterwork for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: “I couldn’t stand being sorry and colored at the same time/it’s so redundant…”
Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill is as close to "must see" theater as you are likely to come across as we approach the deadline for Tony Awards nominations. I hope there is room for a sixth Tony in Ms. McDonald's home, because the odds are in her favor.
Tickets for are on sale through June 1, and a CD of Audra McDonald performing the numbers from the show is in the works.
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