Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
By: Patrick Christiano
Five-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald is truly extraordinary as Billie Holiday in the
Broadway revival of Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, which recently opened at the Circle in the Square. She transforms herself into Billy Holiday in the fictionalized setting, a South Philadelphia night club circa 1959 three months before Holiday’s death at age 43. Lonny Price directs the evening with a nice restraint, and the star drives the action of what is basically a one person play with music.
Although McDonald interacts with her pianist Jimmy Powers played by Shelton Becton, mingles a bit with the audience sitting on the stage in the cabaret, and takes a moment with a cute dog, the evening is all Audra doing a fierce portrayal of Lady Day right down to a perfect re-creation of Lady Day’s soulful rough sound. What is completing astonishing is how McDonald turns her lush soprano into an uncanny recreation of Billie Holliday’s thin expressive voice and style. And since Lady Day is a play with music, without being too presumptuous, I would think this puts Audra McDonald as the front runner for Best Actress in a play. And if she wins, the victory would make her the first actor to win six Tony Awards. Nothing this season compares to her skillful portrayal in this harrowing evening featuring some of the jazz legend’s signature songs.
The play’s concert setting feels contrived with Billy Holiday pouring her heart out to the audience in between songs and going off stage to shoot heroin. Audra McDonald, however, manages to miraculously rise above the material with a triumphant portrayal conceived as one of Holiday’s final shows.
In the play Billy shares her heart breaking story in between performing songs, giving McDonald wearing an elegant white strapless gown complete with long gloves to hide the needle tracks, a chance to recount Holiday’s sordid life to the audience in vivid detail. She casually tells of her rape at age 10 making the disclosure all the more powerful, and jokingly chats about turning to prostitution at 14. The star is unforgettable as she chronicles abuse, drugs from her men and racism all the while delivering movingly accurate renditions of the legend’s classic songs including "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit."
The play is only a glimpse into the final days of the jazz legend’s life, yet the evening is far superior to another play earlier this season with Dee Dee Bridgewater, also called Lady Day and mounted Off Broadway at The Little Shubert. This Lady Day is a moving tribute and McDonald shines triumphantly as a legend in decline.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is now playing at Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway at 50th Street for a limited engagement through September 21. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or online at www.ladydayonbroadway.com