Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill ****
By: Paulanne Simmons
In her latest triumph on Broadway, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, five time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald once again amazes. McDonald thoroughly captures the tone and timing of Billie Holiday as she turns her own exquisite instrument into Lady Day’s thin but expressive voice. Although most people at Circle in the Square probably never saw Holiday perform, one imagines McDonald has caught Holiday’s mannerisms and inner anguish as well.
When McDonald does not sing, director Lonny Price keeps her busy indeed. As Holiday, McDonald drinks enormous volumes of alcohol, relates her tragic life and stumbles on and off the stage. As some of the audience sits on the stage, this sometimes involves a degree of audience interaction, which may not have occurred during Holiday’s final performances when the audience was quite sparse.
It’s interesting to note that today we seem more concerned with a troubled singer’s final days than those times when she was in her glory (witness End of the Rainbow, a musical about Judy Garland that landed on Broadway in 2012). Nevertheless, when McDonald sings Holiday’s most famous songs, "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit," one can feel the expectation and exhilaration in the audience. A few songs are preceded by applause even before McDonald sings a note.
But the script Lanie Robertson has written is all too dreary and familiar. Billie Holiday had a sad life. Born into poverty, she was raped and then turned into a prostitute by her own mother. Holiday’s lover led her into addiction. The government put her in jail. And Jim Crow made sure she couldn’t even find a bathroom when she needed to relieve herself.
The format of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill has been used so many times it has become something of a gimmick: a talented performer sings the deceased star’s songs and delivers a running commentary on her life. In fact Dee Dee Bridgewater already did something similar for Billie Holiday in Lady Day.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill might have been a lot more interesting if McDonald had used her own magnificent voice to interpret rather than imitate Holiday, and left the commentary to a minimum. However, most people will forgive the show its faults just to hear McDonald sing Holiday. Still, after admiring McDonald’s work, one is left with the impression that Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a fine example of brilliant mimicry but not a work of creative genius.
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