The minute that Audra McDonald begins to sing we are transported – it is like something out of Star Trek – to Billie Holiday’s planet. The sound is so pure that it slams into you like a heat seeking missile. If you closed your eyes you could leave your body and travel back in time 50 or so years. Audra McDonald almost disappears when she sings as Lady Day. Almost but not quite.
This is a contrived bit of theatre pulled together to create something that never happened. While Holiday did perform at Emerson’s in south Philly, I cannot imagine it was anything like this. From the tapes I have seen of Ms. Holiday she was never as animated as McDonald portrays her. She was not snappy and filled with patter. Especially at this point in her life, when she was six months from her death. She was sliding down into the pit from which she would never climb out.
To McDonald’s credit she does get this point across in her performance. Holiday’s focus, when she is not singing, is on the location of her drink, which starts out as whiskey and changes over to vodka nearly straight from the bottle.
While the story telling is contrived, like many one person history shows, the stories themselves are of interest. Holiday had a loyal friend in Artie Shaw with whom she toured the East Coast. She referred to her mother as “The Dutchess” and wrote God Bless The Child for her. Once upon a time she was 200 pounds and working in a whorehouse cleaning. She ran away from there and found a job as a singer in Harlem when she failed the job application for a dancer. After that life took off. Her devotion to Sonny Monroe led her to heroine – she wanted to try it to prove her love so that she would know what it was like for him. And that was that. And when she pleaded guilty for heroine possession to cover for Sonny everything fell apart. She lost her Cabaret Card for New York and could not play in the clubs she loved so much. The stories rattle on, and Holiday begins to disappear in front of our eyes.
The audience stands and cheers of course, because that is what you do when a legend has been resurrected. But I was moved less by the performance and more by the thought of Holiday. The very sad road down which she journeyed is still being trod today, as evidenced by the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Tragedy is not confined to the artistic past.
McDonald follows the script, such as it is, including handling the appearance of a small dog, as best she can. But it is her singing that is transcendent. In comparison to that the script fades away and the thrill of feeling as though you have become a time traveler is handed to you with a ribbon ties around it. That grace is entirely due to McDonald’s artistry. So Brava for that.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
By Lanie Robertson; directed by Lonny Price; sets by James Noone; costumes by Esosa; lighting by Robert Wierzel; sound by Steve Canyon Kennedy; animals trained by William Berloni; technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates; musical arrangements/orchestrations by Tim Weil; conductor/pianist, Shelton Becton; production stage manager, Timothy R. Semon; associate director, Matt Cowart; associate producers, Greenleaf Productions/Michael Crea and PJ Miller; company manager, Daniel Hoyos; general manager, Richards/Climan Inc.
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jessica Genick, Will Trice, Ronald Frankel, Rebecca Gold, Roger Berlind, Ken Greiner, Gabrielle Palitz, Irene Gandy and GFour Productions. At the Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway at 50th Street; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through June 1. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Audra McDonald (Billie Holiday), Shelton Becton (Jimmy Powers) and Roxie (Pepi).