All Things Entertaining and Cultural
As Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, McDonald not only delivers riveting renditions of Holiday’s songs in a light, scratchy voice that is tones different from her own and cunningly true to Lady Day’s without being self-consciously imitative, but she acts the singer’s breakdown in neat, subtle steps that show the searing pain of Holiday’s decline and illustrate compactly the tarnishing of artistry through self-destruction.
“Tarnishing” is the selected word because Billie’s, and Audra’s, artistry shows through any crust of booze, heroin, age, incarceration, and difficulty in life. It is ineluctable. The genius is visible and discernable even when the lady/Lady is a shell working on remembered motions and summoning the luster that made her a continuing star as drugs, dependency, and badly applied laws are killing her.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a a series of snapshots from Holiday’s life, related as patter between songs and going in a spiral from in control to beyond repair as witnessed in the course of McDonald’s superbly moving performance. Robertson sets his play in March, 1959, a few months before cirrhosis and heart problems claim Billie’s life. Lady Day is playing in Philadelphia, my hometown which I often refer to as “the city that hates you back,” and a place where the police and a federal judge were particularly unkind to Miss Holiday. (Yes, she broke the laws for which she was prosecuted, but the laws, the police who enforced them, and the judge who tried Billie are too stupid to deserve respect. I call them the “heh-heh” people, the kind who are self-righteous and vindictive and who smile in piety and self-satisfaction as they destroy people’s happiness for their puritanical pleasure.) Not able to work in New York because the police there, in another act of heh-heh stupidity, denied her a cabaret card she needs to perform in clubs, Billie returns reluctantly to Philadelphia where the owner of a Bainbridge Street boite is willing to give her a stage.
I have seen Robertson’s play on several occasions and always enjoyed it, but Audra McDonald takes it from being a competent combination of bio and music to being a bona fide tragedy that shows an amazing and unique talent falling to a panoply of human failings, hers and other’s. McDonald in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a theatrical landmark. Unfortunately, it has a limited season after which it fades into cherished memory come August. Even if the producers keep “Lady Day” running when McDonald moves on, some magic will be missing. Robertson wrote a fine vehicle, and the music is a reward of its own, but Audra McDonald is the factor that makes “Lady Day” transcendent and puts it on a special plane that it’s hard to imagine any other artist being able to reach.
McDonald makes you fall in love with Billie Holiday and truly pity and rue her collapse, one that even musical cues cannot halt, as they are able to do when “Lady Day” begins.
McDonald’s Holiday loves her audience. She kibbitzes with them and confides in them. She cadges cigarettes and tastes drinks. She flirts. She charms. A nightclub is her milieu, and she’s natural and easygoing in it. On first appearance, Holiday looks buoyed, vibrant, and ready to sing. Her health and recent imprisonment might make her a bit shaky, and McDonald subtly conveys that, but her glamor, professional poise, musical confidence, and joy at being on a stage supersede any adversity.
Her byplay with her band is collegial and happy. Her pianist and musical director, Jimmy Powers, played with dignity and feeling by Shelton Becton, as deft with a line as he is with a keyboard, is her caregiver, a rock who knows what Billie needs and tries to guide her to what is best for her, less and less successfully as “Lady Day” proceeds. Becton has a way of portraying honest concern, and you believe he is trying to conserve, and preserve, Billie so she might, against all odds, recover from her addictions and reign once more as the major entertainer her artistry warrants.
McDonald convinces you Billie Holiday is in front of you. Her acting and singing seem effortless. You see Billie living a critical evening of her life, an evening that seems to time-lapse the triumphs and obstacles of her life in general.
McDonald makes Billie’s decline gradual. Minute, but noticeable, changes in the singer’s posture, gait, and focus while on stage tell the story of breakdown. As with many a trouper, Holiday finds music her salvation. Music delays Billie’s undoing because singing is her refuge. It’s where her discipline and brilliance emerge. It’s where everything connects. She can have fun with the audience or the band, but that doesn’t take any heart. She can resort to liquor or heroin, but they are only temporary, and damaging, helps. In music, she can present what she wrote, as in “God Bless the Child,” which she dedicates to her mother, the Duchess, or “Strange Fruit,” a reaction to lynchings she saw while touring the Southern U.S. She can express herself in honest and emotional ways that make every song into a story, even rhythmic numbers that entertain more than move, like the signature “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Easy Living.”
In “Lady Day,” McDonald does a complete nightclub act of about 15 songs while showing Billie at different phases of capability as her show wends on.
Vocally, McDonald lets you hear every trademark of Billie’s voice, with a trace of Judy Garland evident as well. The actress bends her talent to suit the style of another artist, and she does so with uncanny deftness. The intonation, the crackle of the voice, the phrasing is all Billie, but the genius this time around is McDonald who enlivens and arrests the audience with her magnificent singing.
McDonald’s is all nervous, yet assured, energy when she first appears. During the show of her act, Billie nods her head towards her right shoulder and indicates, even before she may be aware of it, that she is tired. Time goes by, and Billie seems a bit more unsteady on stage. There is a sequence when McDonald, who has asked someone at a ringside table to help her from the stage on occasion when she wanted to mingle with the audience, falls off the stage in a manner that is so real and sudden, you worry for both Billie and Audra.
In the long run, it’s the way McDonald uses her eyes, closing them in degrees as Billie feels the effects of the drinking and drugging she’s does, and in her knees, that become less steady in time, that McDonald physicalizes the breakdown in Billie’s stamina. She even shows the “stimulants'” effect while singing. Her voice gets huskier and scratchier in later numbers. Eventually, it also becomes slushier and less articulated. To McDonald’s credit, she conveys the musicality and tone of all songs even as Billie’s voice diminishes into slurs.
McDonald always holds interest as she tells Billie’s story. She keeps the exposition from sounding like comme il faut narration and makes in conversational, possibly even conspiratorial, as if she’s letting the audience in on secrets.
Robertson’s script covers Billie’s childhood in Baltimore, her relationship with her mother, her coming to Harlem and getting jobs as a singer, her touring with bands, her marriages, her introduction to dope, and her brushes with the law.
McDonald keeps Billie witty and unapologetic. Her Billie is able to laugh at herself and admit, with regret but no guilt, that she contributed to her own undoing. It is a good, sincere recitation, touching because McDonald makes everything so genuine and of the moment.
James Noone’s nightclub set, complete with pale green satin circular canopy and dusty gold fringe hanging down, only strand frayed and dangling below the others, creates the perfect atmosphere for Robertson’s play. The white dress designed by Esoso is also exactly on the mark. Billie Holiday’s signature gardenia adds to the costume and provides some dramatic moments for McDonald. Shelton Becton leads a fine trio of musicians which includes George Farmer on bass and Clayton Craddock on drums. Lonny Price directs the ensemble and maintains the right pace to let Robertson’s script unfold and for McDonald to subtly turn Billie Holiday into a tragic figure.
By watching a contemporary genius, Audra McDonald, you gain insight into a bygone genius, Billie Holiday, a woman who shaped her own sound and could express all she felt in compositions she wrote and delivered to audiences.
McDonald will be a lead contender for the 2014 Tony for Best Actress in a Play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” being regarded as a drama rather than a musical. Her main rival to receive the award is Cherry Jones, who gave a master class in acting while portraying Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” earlier this season. The contest will be close. Should McDonald earn the Tony, she will make history in two significant ways. She will be the first person to receive six Tonys for performance, and she will be the first person who has won an acting award in all four categories in which she is eligible. (She was given the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for “Porgy and Bess ” in 2012, the Tony for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical in 1994 for “Carousel” and 1998 for “Ragtime,” and the Tony for Best Supporting Actress in a Play in 1996 for “Master Class” and in 2004 for “A Raisin in the Sun.”)
Like many, I have been a fan of Audra McDonald since I saw her exuberant portrayal of Carrie in “Carousel.” She was Audra Ann McDonald then. About two dozen concert and theatrical performances later, I remain in awe of Audra’s talent. I think I found the key to her magnetic line readings and magnificent singing — She handles everything she does as if it was a musical score. Even when she speaks, you can see her breathing and using her phrasing as a singer would. Audra McDonald is gifted, and being able to see her so often is a gift. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is just one more present from this extraordinary star.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” runs through Sunday, August 10 at the Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway (entrance on W. 50th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue), in New York City. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $250 to $97 and can be obtained by calling 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250 or going online to www.telecharge.com