BWW Reviews: McDonald Mesmerizes in LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL
Audra McDonald's luxurious soprano with thoughtful lyric phrasing may not be the first voice that comes to mind when drawing comparisons to the emotionally thick, laconic blues of Billie Holiday. But then, Lanie Robertson's 1986 theatre piece, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, despite its inclusion of over a dozen Holiday-recorded standards in a 90-minute performance, is not merely a re-creation concert. It's a drama about how a great artist's self-destruction permeates into her art, and for that, an actor of McDonald's high caliber is certainly required.
Robertson's inspiration for the play came when a boyfriend described for her a 1959 Holiday performance he attended in a little North Philadelphia dive, roughly three months before her death. It had been twelve years since she served jail time for drug possession and though she had sung at Carnegie Hall and appeared on Broadway since then, New York City's refusal to grant her a new cabaret license prevented her from doing what she loved best, singing in Manhattan nightclubs.
According to his report, a scant seven customers were in attendance as one of American music's most important vocalists stumbled onto the stage, obviously under the influence of something, introduced her pet Chihuahua, Pepi, and, while drinking alcohol throughout, sang ten or twelve numbers before staggering offstage.
Naturally, it would be impractical to limit performances of director Lonny Price's new Broadway production to seven customers (Though, as immersive theatre, it sounds like a great idea.) but even so, there doesn't seem to be a great effort made to give any indication that the lady's current venue is in any way a step down.
Though most of the audience sits in Circle In The Square's horseshoe-shaped arena seating, "festive dress" is encouraged for those enjoying complimentary beverage service at the twenty nightclub tables up front. There's a neatly dressed bartender and up on stage is the trio of conductor Shelton Becton (who also plays Holiday's music director, Jimmy Powers) at piano, Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass. Designer James Noone's neutral setting lacks any kind of character.
But little of that matters once McDonald takes the stage. So immediately stunning is the accuracy of her replication of Holiday's timbre and inflections at that point of her life that many of Thursday night's audience responded with applause a mere eight bars into her opening performance of "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone."
The play follows the familiar structure of having the character's song selection and patter highlight aspects of her life and career. Having a chilling "Strange Fruit" follow remembrances of past racial indignities is an obvious turn to be appreciated, but the play's strength lies in discomforting moments, like when she defends her attachment to abusive men with "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" ("I swear I won't call no copper / If I'm beat up by my papa.").
Though the evening includes such standards as "God Bless The Child," "Crazy He Calls Me," "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Easy Livin'", the star reminds the audience that she only sings what she feels moved to sing, not always giving complete performances and frequently rambling in a disoriented haze. She half-jokes that Powers makes sure she includes enough of the songs the people came to hear.
Underneath the re-creation of Holiday's classic renditions is McDonald's clear subtext that the woman is clinging to these songs, and her opportunity to sing them in an intimate setting, as a comfort. The music is the only thing in her life that has given back all that she has given.
The actor plays her character's self-indulgent behavior and struggle to stay coherent with such realistic conviction that the performance, appropriately, often becomes embarrassing to watch. You can imagine angry members of a real-life audience walking out and demanding their money back.
So galvanizing is McDonald's work that it wasn't until midway through the performance that I began to notice images being projected in back of her. Never mind them. You won't want to draw your attention away from Audra McDonald for a moment. As the saying goes, there's a lady on stage, and not only is she an entrancing singer, but she's one hell of an actor.