Five-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald portrays an emotionally volatile Billie Holiday toward the end of her life in Lanie Robertson’s bio-play fashioned around a nightclub appearance.
In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a late entry in the Broadway season, Audra McDonald has impersonating a real person in what’s virtually a solo show about the late jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose rough life story is almost as familiar as her distinctive sound.
Physically, McDonald of course looks far healthier than Holiday did near the end, and vocally, this Juilliard-trained soprano could hardly have less in common with the jazz legend. But her astonishing interpretation of signature songs like “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” captures the subject’s essence in ways that transcend mimicry. Plunging beneath her natural register, McDonald nails the scratchy, conversational quality of Holiday’s voice in her later years, the distinctive idiosyncrasies of her phrasing and intonation, but also her unique way of penetrating the heart of a lyric. McDonald can also be playful in her homage, for instance when she luxuriates in the howls and growls and sexy swoons of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”
So galvanizing is McDonald’s work you won’t want to draw your attention away from Audra McDonald for a moment. The stage set up was marvelous. The story held nothing back of her faults and ailments. No sugar coating to the discrimination, the tribulations, the successes’, the broken boundaries all to the final call. foot tapping , jaw dropping, occasional laughter at her witty comments.
Watching such a consummate performer lose herself in the character and her music, it’s clear there’s not just diligent research here but also a profound empathy with the tragic struggle of Holiday’s tempestuous life. Director Lonny Price, set designer James Noone and lighting chief Robert Wierzel have conjured the smoky ambiance and intimacy of a late-’50s nightspot, its provocativeness enhanced by having the musicians (Becton on piano, George Farmer on bass, Clayton Craddock on drums) playing silky jazz before the show starts. Much of the actual stage is given over to cabaret tables where part of the audience sits over drinks, with a cocktail bar at the back, to which Billie weaves her way mid-set and pours herself an epic gin on the rocks.
It’s a grueling monologue to sustain, but Audra McDonald pulls it off with style and grace and a helluva set of lungs.
Written By: Ese Ofurhie