It's sad without being maudlin, a history lesson without being preachy. It's earthy and seemingly honest. Since her death, Billie Holiday, who was raped and mistreated and jailed, has become a siren for singers, her tortured life and vocals too rich too pass up. McDonald does honor to her troubled spirit...As for the singing, it's a testament to McDonald, who has one of the strongest voices in musical theater, that she molds hers to fit Holiday's sound, whether it's in a subdued "Crazy He Calls Me" or a sassy "Baby Doll." She manages to capture that smoky, peanut-buttery, sometimes staccato delivery. It's haunting. Close your eyes and Lady Day is back.
LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL Broadway Reviews
Reviews of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill on Broadway. See what all the critics had to say and see all the ratings for Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill including the New York Times and More...
McDonald gets to show off her comedic skills, naughtily teasing her conductor and pianist (the excellent Shelton Becton) and wandering among the audience members who sit at tables incorporated into the set. At one point, her Holiday heads for the bottles of booze lined up in back of them and pours herself a strong one; at another, she nuzzles her pet pooch, Pepi (played by a sweetly poised rescue dog named Roxie)...Not surprisingly, though, Lady Day is at its most potent when the songs speak for her. McDonald delivers a beautifully phrased God Bless the Child, an enchanting Crazy He Calls Me, a chilling Strange Fruit.
In Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, a late entry in the Broadway season, McDonald has taken on the task of impersonating a real person in what's virtually a solo show about the late jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose rough life story is almost as familiar as her distinctive sound...McDonald doesn't let Holiday wallow as she tells us, almost offhandedly, about her rape at 10, her prostitution at 14, the macabre death of her great-grandmother, a slave, and the racism that haunted her career. Long before we are shocked, yet again, by the haunting images of her great song about racism, "Strange Fruit," this amazing actress and this jazz icon are indivisible.
Along with salty humor, joy, bitterness and plummeting despair, that sense of suffering as a constant companion permeates and elevates Lanie Robertson's slender yet affecting bio-play with music, crafted as a woozy late-night concert in the South Philly locale of the title, a few months before the singer's death...Watching such a consummate performer lose herself in the character and her music, it's clear there's not just diligent research here but also a profound empathy with the tragic struggle of Holiday's tempestuous life...There's an inevitable artificiality about so much biographical data being stuffed into a "concert" performance, and Price adds to that informational aspect by beaming superfluous photographs and other visual aids onto the rear wall. But compared to the clunky Garland or Joplin shows mentioned earlier, Robertson's play incorporates his subject's background with sufficient economy to maintain the illusion of a spontaneous performance.
The ungainly stage at Broadway's Circle in the Square has proved an inspiration for set designer James Noone to recreate Emerson's Bar & Grill, the seedy joint in North Philadelphia where Billie Holiday played one of her last club dates in 1959, three months before she died...It's a known fact that McDonald is a majestic singer. (Maybe the best Bess, of "Porgy and Bess," our modern stage has seen.) In more than a dozen songs, she captures the plaintive sound, the eccentric phrasing and all the little vocal catches that identify Billie Holiday's unique style. But it's her extraordinary sensitivity as an actor that makes McDonald's interpretation memorable.
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.' 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.
While McDonald's vocal inflections can seem a tad overstudied in the show's opening number, 'I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,' as she spits out breaths at the end of each musical phrase, the actress quickly settles into the role and erases all memory of her operatic belter's soprano and her naturally bubbly personality. In their place: a voice both smoky and breathy, and a demeanor that suggests a hard-lived life in the first half of the 20th century. The physicality of her portrayal is similarly remarkable.
Perhaps the most complimentary remark to be made about Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is that in 90 minutes and under Lonny Price's fully empathetic direction, she nails that voice and she gets that whole life. Send her flowers. Send her carloads of Holiday's favored gardenias.
The much-decorated McDonald - five Tonys and counting - evokes the tough steel and rough velvet of Holiday's singing with uncanny precision. But this isn't about mimicry. It's about the heart and soul, bruised and battered, that comes through. Audra McDonald channels Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. This is McDonald at her most intimate. Director Lonny Price has Holiday roam the audience bumming cigarettes and drinks. The play is the story of a women whose gift was her voice. The final moment - in dead silence - is shattering. Ooh, ooh, ooh, indeed.
We hear much (too much) of this sorry story during the show, written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, and first produced Off Broadway in 1986...Mr. Robertson has created a persuasive voice for these reflections, salty and sassy, occasionally flaring into hot bursts of anger, and prone to gin-fueled digressions. Ms. McDonald moves between the moods with a jittery sharpness, conveying the warmth and humor in bright, glowing bursts that can quickly subside into dark, bitter ruminations on the wayward, reckless groove into which her life gradually fell...Still, it's worth putting up with the show's tackier (and duller) aspects for the pleasure of hearing Ms. McDonald breathe aching life into some of Holiday's greatest songs.
It is often said that Holiday cannot be authentically imitated or covered. That's probably true. But as directed by Lonnie Price, McDonald undergoes a complete transformation vocally and physically, a la Meryl Streep, that is highly theatrical but believable and seemingly effortless. It's easy to forget that the play is pretty thin thanks to her transfixing performance. McDonald forsakes her rich singing abilities to capture Holiday's distinctively small and scratchy voice. But more than that, she credibly and powerfully inhabits a disoriented woman who is slurring her words and appears to be lost both emotionally and mentally.
Only a fool would second-guess the transformative power of Audra McDonald, but when it was announced that this five-time Tony Award-winner was going to portray Billie Holiday in the Broadway production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, I must confess that I had my qualms...But from the moment McDonald takes the microphone, a metamorphosis more striking than any in Ovid occurs...I don't want to overinflate the dramatic accomplishment of Lady Day, a minor offering that becomes something major only as a showcase for McDonald's rare artistry, but by the end of the piece Holiday's singing seems to tell not just her own story but a national one.
Most of us would pay just to hear McDonald recite availability on the TKTS board, and her recreation of Holiday's voice was just swell to my ear. Indeed, casual Holiday fans might have difficulty distinguishing the two...Ultimately, Lady Day should appeal to a broad cross-section of theatergoers-you don't need a vast familiarity with Billie Holiday to enjoy the show, and McDonald gives another powerful and distinct performance.
On the one hand, we have Audra McDonald, poised and elegant - a classically trained soprano and five-time Tony winner. On the other, there's the raspy-voiced Billie Holiday, who lifted herself from the gutter to achieve fame as a jazz singer, only to crash out on drink and drugs. Talk about casting against type. And yet as soon as McDonald opens her mouth in Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," it's Holiday we hear.
You will undoubtedly hear that what Audra McDonald is doing as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is not an impersonation. It is, though. However much more it eventually becomes, it starts with capturing that eccentric, heartbreaking voice - and the capture is uncanny. Right from the first syllables of "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," which opens the show, McDonald nails the pinched tone, side-mouth delivery, and precipitous register leaps of Holiday in her heyday. Consonants are negotiable: "love" is more like "luhw." Final vowels become dramatic opportunities: "Hear my plea-uh and hurry home to me-uh!" Pitch is obscure or even absent; some notes sound fried in place yet remain part of the melody. McDonald's Holiday doesn't so much sing as play her voice, like a saxophone, with perfect confidence in (or indifference to) its expressive powers.
Under the direction of Lonny Price, the evening is a stinging portrait of a great artist's failed life. But even with deep admiration for McDonald's potent acting, the evening feels out of balance. The details of Holiday's story are already well-known, so it doesn't have the allure of revelation. (The same material was covered last year in the off-Broadway bio-musical "Lady Day.") What the production does offer that's fresh, exciting and irresistibly entertaining is McDonald singing Holiday. Too bad the vivid evening wasn't more strongly tilted in that direction.