BWW Blog: A Cleveland Reviewer Visits Broadway

BWW Blog: A Cleveland Reviewer Visits Broadway

Roy Berko

(Member: Cleveland Critics Circle and American Theatre Critics Association)

This has been an exciting year on Broadway. The Tony Awards will be announced soon. In preparation, I went to New York to see some of the nominated shows. Here's some brief comments:

"Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Grill"

What could be better than having Audra McDonald singing for an hour and-a-half? How about McDonald channeling the singing style and interpretative abilities of the late, great Billie Holiday? McDonald doesn't portray Holiday, she slips into Holiday's persona and becomes the jazz singer, with a blues soul.

Holiday, the granddaughter of a slave, endured much success in her life, but also was the victim of overt racism, poor choice in mates, and dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Near the end of her life, the woman who was considered "the world's greatest jazz singer," had lost so much of her public appeal that she appeared before an audience that was reported to be seven people.

Lanie Robertson, the author of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," reports that in 1959 a boyfriend of hers saw, "The Duchess," as Holiday was often called, in a "little dive" about three months before she died. The boyfriend reported that Holiday "was obviously high, carrying her little Chihuahua, Pepi, whom she introduced to the audience." He further reported that she had "a water glass which was filled and refilled with booze." She sang ten to 12 songs and "staggered out."

The image of this, one of America's icons of music, having imploded , "so undervalued at the end of her life and career was an image that has always haunted me" [Robertson]. It was this reflection that inspired her to write, "Lady Day."

The song list is a tribute to Holiday's career. The score includes "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," "When a Woman Loves a Man," "Somebody's on My Mind," "Easy Living," and "Deep Song."

McDonald is nothing short of mesmerizing. She enters as Holiday, performs as the tortured soul, getting more and more drunk as the show goes on, staggers off stage for a few minutes, and returns not only with her dog cradled in her arms, but one glove pulled down, with needle tracks clearly showing on the bare arm. She continues the show in a stupor, babbling about her personal life, and finally stumbles out.

The production is meticulously directed by Lonny Price. The pace, blocking and character interpretation are perfectly designed.

Capsule judgment: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" is an amazing way to not only learn about Billie Holiday, get a lesson about the overt prejudices against Blacks during the mid-twentieth century, be exposed to jazz, but be captivated by Audra McDonald. Yes, as one of the show's songs says, "Somebody's On My Mind." Actually two somebody's: Billie Holiday and Audra McDonald!

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" opened at the Circle in the Square, West 50th Street, on April 13, 2014, for a limited run which is scheduled to end on August 10.

"The Bridges of Madison County"

Some musicals are filled with flash, glitter, large production numbers and massive choruses. "The Bridges of Madison County" is not one of these. It is a well-conceived, tender, and low-keyed experience. It is a "little" musical, much in the realm of "She Loves Me."

Adapted from the novel "The Bridges of Madison County," by Robert James Waller, is a story based on the author's desire to expand on his belief that some people experience "a special love that happens just once in a lifetime-if you're lucky."

The story centers on Francesca, an Italian-American unfulfilled house wife, who met her husband-to-be while he was serving in Italy during World War II. She is quickly swept off her feet, marries, and is whisked off to Iowa. Flat, unexciting Iowa, very unlike her beloved Italy. A place filled with corn and little culture, but good caring folks.

Unexpectedly, into Francesca's life wanders Robert Kincaid, a "National Geographic" photographer, in the area to take photos of the renowned bridges of Madison County. It's the summer of 1965, and her husband and teenage children are at the Illinois state fair. Robert is having difficulty finding one of the fabled structures, stops for directions at her family's farm, and a tale of infidelity, love, unfulfilled experiences, and then the inevitable need to make a pivotal decision that will not only affect the lives of Francesca and Robert, but her entire family.

Jason Robert Brown's music is nicely tucked into and enhances Marsha Norman's understated book. The songs grow out of the story, not, as is often the case of musicals, placed in to highlight a character or change the mood.

The staged production, under the deft direction of Bartlett Sher, is compelling.

Kelli O'Hara (Francesca) and Steven Pasquale (Robert) have a wonderful chemistry that makes the joy of their meeting, and sadness of their parting, heartfelt. They both posses fine singing voices, sing meanings not words, and create characters that live.

Much to the dismay of many, and the frustration of this reviewer, in spite of four Tony Award nominations, including one for O'Hara as Best Actress in a Musical and Best Original Score, the producers of "The Bridges of Madison County," announced that the show will close after the Sunday, May 18 staging, its 137th performance.

Capsule judgment: "The Bridges of Madison County," is one of those special, intimate, meaningful, well-conceived and performed shows that deserved a longer shelf-life than it is getting. A touring version will be on the road next Fall.

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