Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill
Billie Holiday was one of the great voices of the 20th century. Her story is one of the great tragedies. Similarities with icons Judy Garland and Edith Piaf are inevitable. All three were in their forties when they died, their bodies ravaged from substance abuse. All three have been the subject of numerous films and stage shows, with good reason.
In 1972, Sidney J. Furie directed Diana Ross in her extraordinary film debut, "Lady Sings the Blues," based on Holiday's ghost written autobiography. Ross received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her remarkable portrayal of the legendary singer, warts and all.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," written by Lanie Robertson, attempts to capture the soul of the chanteuse, while portraying her difficult life in an unsanitized fashion and providing a social backdrop of the tumultuous times in which she lived.
The one-woman solo piece (plus band) was first mounted in 1986 and starred the underrated Lonette McKee. The bio-musical has since been performed in many regional theatres.
Interesting to note that a few months ago Dee Dee Bridgewater played Holiday in Stephen Stahl's (apparently) similar play, "Lady Day."
Now, five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald fully immerses herself into the mind, body and spirit of the woman known as Lady Day, providing theatregoers with one of the most devastating theatrical performances of the year.
What Holiday had in common with Garland and Piaf was that magical ability to beguile an audience, to captivate them simply by singing a song. It was the mode of interpretation that allowed people into the soul of the artist. They gave so much of who and what they were when they performed, there wasn't much left offstage.
McDonald's astonishing ability to perfectly sound like Holiday while paying homage to the singer is amazing to behold. It's a total embodiment, at times sultry and seductive, other times harried, tired and wasted. Unusually forthcoming. Chillingly frank.
Robertson sets her show in 1959, three months before Holiday's death in a little dive in North Philadelphia where the diva had actually performed to a crowd of seven patrons. Holiday hated the city since it was the place she was wrongly convicted of drug possession which led to her Cabaret Club Card being revoked, meaning she could no longer perform in NYC.
It's difficult to get the sense of the devaluation and humiliation since Circle in the Square has been transformed into this elaborate nightclub setting. The show ambitiously sets out to give us a glimpse into Holiday's nightmarish life. It's left up to McDonald to convey that feeling of desperation and she delivers magnificently. The piece has us experience her devolving, first into an alcoholic haze and, finally, into a heroine-high where she becomes almost completely incoherent. The final moment is quite stirring.
The book features vividly told moments -- sometimes fragments -- from Holiday's life and Robertson does her best to paint a broad portrait of the rise and fall of a true artist and troubled human being, from the inspiration she got by listening to the recording of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, to her growing up in a "cathouse," to her touring with Artie Shaw's band and the issues that arose, including a hilarious, disturbing tale about her not being allowed to use the bathroom.
McDonald conveys Holiday's justified anger at white America with ferocity and humor: "In this country bein' arrested is the colored folks tradition. Since the ofays set us free, they don't know what to do with us but lock us up!"
We get a true sense of the harsh realities of the racism that existed in our country just a few short years ago -- and still does in some places even today.
What we also get is a sense of what it means to be an artist. Sometimes personal demons and oppression shape an artist and force them into revealing the deepest and most painful aspects of themselves through their art. McDonald acts as an avatar for Holiday, daring to explore and expose her demons.
Finally, there are the songs: Fifteen classics. McDonald's moving, exuberant, evocative, mesmerizing take on some of Lady Day's canon feels wholly authentic and is the reason the show soars. One or two fewer monologues and one or three more songs would have been most welcome since it's in the musical renditions that we truly get a sense of what Holiday means when she says: "Singin's always been the best part of livin' to me." The highlight, in a set of nothing but highlights, being the searing protest song, "Strange Fruit."
"Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh."
Audra McDonald summons up the ghost of Billie Holiday to deliver the sweet and fresh right before she goes for the jugular with a good dose of reality.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" has been extended through Oct. 5 at the Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway at 50th Street, in New York City. For information and tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.