|LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL|
Ever since she burst on the Broadway stage in 1994 – improbably and brilliantly – as sassy Maine lass Carrie Pipperidge in Nicholas Hytner’s stunning revival of “Carousel,” Audra McDonald has left us breathless time and again with her remarkable transformations into characters as diverse as a nervous opera student, a lonely Western spinster, a put-upon Chicago housewife, and a drug-addled whore who finds redemption in the arms of a cripple.
But none of McDonald’s previous feats of prestidigitation (or her five Tony Awards) might adequately prepare you for just how magically she disappears into the heart, soul – and yes, voice – of the troubled jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” now making its long-belated Broadway bow at Circle in the Square. Within seconds of the show’s opening number, “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” any memory you might have of McDonald’s soaring, quasi-operatic soprano have been erased and instantly replaced by Holiday’s lower, reedy tones.
Unsurprisingly, given her commitment to the role, McDonald sustains Holiday’s signature brand of singing throughout the 90-minute work (which is set just months before her untimely death in 1959.) Moreover, McDonald does full justice to Holiday’s best-known standards, such as “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” and “T’Aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” while also treating us some less familiar tunes.
But this is no concert. I’m not even sure it’s really a musical, since the actress (poured into a white strapless dress by ESosa) talks more than sings. In these virtual monologues, McDonald burrows so deeply into the unhappy Holiday, unable to ease her pain even by downing copious amounts of liquor, that you almost literally feel her pain. True, many of Robertson’s stories about Holiday’s tragic life – her rape at age 10, her arrest for drug possession, which resulted in the loss of her cabaret card – have become wearying familiar through other plays and films. (I hadn’t heard the funny one, though, about the aftermath of the singer not being allowed to use the bathroom in a Southern club in the 1930s while touring with Artie Shaw). Yet, it is McDonald’s gift that she tells these tales as if they’ve never been heard – or spoken out loud -- before.
As Holiday, McDonald also interacts effectively with the patrons sitting ringside in cabaret tables, occasionally banters with her protective pianist and bandleader Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton), and even introduces us to her beloved dog Pepi (the adorable, affectionate Roxie), never once breaking character or a sweat.
Lonny Price’s production is remarkably spare, using just a handful of projections and props for illustration, and scenic designer James Noone has convincingly turned the floor area of the theater into the Philadelphia club. But, let’s face it: one isn’t visiting Emerson’s for the atmosphere. We’ve come to pay tribute to Billie – and to spend to time with the American theater’s most versatile leading lady.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 3/25/2014
Circle in the Square
235 West 50th Street
New York, NY 10019