Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
By David Sheward
When attending a press preview of this production, I didn’t know that Audra McDonald would be attempting a re-creation of Billie Holiday’s distinctively scratchy and emotive voice. I had assumed she would be doing an interpretation, channeling her own smooth soprano into a jazz configuration. So when McDonald stepped onto set designer James Noone’s re-creation of a small nightclub stage in 1959 South Philadelphia and opened her mouth, I was shocked. The sounds that came out were not an approximation.
There was that unique combination of honey and vinegar poured over barbed wire. There was the caress and the clawing. It was the voice I had heard on innumerable recordings plaintively crooning about love, betrayal, and loneliness. For the 90 minutes of this play with music, McDonald is Holiday.
Lanie Robertson’s 1986 script, previously presented Off-Broadway with Lonette McKee, is more than a bit unimaginative. In this script, based on a real-life club engagement three months before her death at age 43, the legendary singer pours out her entire life story as if she were narrating a film biography in between performing a dozen or so numbers, downing vodka shots, and shooting heroin offstage. McDonald interacts a bit with conductor-pianist Shelton Becton as accompanist Jimmy Powers, and a cute little dog makes a cameo, but this is largely a one-woman show. Director Lonny Price uses photos and props, gorgeously illuminated by lighting designer Robert Wierzel behind a scrim, to illustrate various incidents and characters in Holiday’s past.
Despite the predictable nature of the monologues, McDonald gives them as much blood and life as she gives her amazing musical performances. Both are staged with fluidity by Price. The actor moves around Noone’s set, creating the illusion of intimacy in the vast Circle in the Square. In her nonsinging moments, McDonald expertly captures Holiday’s unquenchable humor despite abusive treatment by racist whites and abusive boyfriends. Her casual mention of Holiday’s being raped at 10 and then joking about working in a bordello at 14 are devastating in their ease. Later, Holiday’s suppressed rage is triggered by certain songs, and McDonald unleashes it to heartbreaking effect in the harrowing "Strange Fruit," a wail in protest of the too-common practice of lynching. She’s also yearningly bittersweet with "God Bless the Child," raucously playful in "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)," and romantically pensive on "When a Woman Loves a Man."
The elegant white gown, complete with long sleeves to conceal needle marks, designed by Esosa, completes this indelible portrait of one great artist by another.
April 13-Aug. 10. Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway, NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $97-250. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva