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A magnificent Audra McDonald channels Billie Holiday on Broadway in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”

What could be better than having Audra McDonald singing for an hour and-a-half?  How about McDonald channeling the singing style and interpretative abilities of the late, great Billie Holiday?  McDonald doesn’t portray Holiday, she slips into Holiday’s persona and becomes the jazz singer, with a blues soul.
Holiday, the granddaughter of a slave, endured much success in her life, but also was the victim of overt racism, poor choice in mates, and dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Near the end of her life, the woman who was considered “the world’s greatest jazz singer,” had lost so much of her public appeal that she appeared before an audience that was reported to be seven people.

Lanie Robertson, the author of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” reports that in 1959 a boyfriend of hers saw, “The Duchess,” as Holiday was often called, in a “little dive” about three months before she died.   The boyfriend reported that Holiday “was obviously high, carrying her little Chihuahua, Pepi, whom she introduced to the audience.”  He further reported that she had “a water glass which was filled and refilled with booze.”  She sang ten to 12 songs and “staggered out.”

The image of this, one of America’s icons of music, having imploded , “so undervalued at the end of her life and career was an image that has always haunted me” [Robertson].  It was this reflection that inspired her to write, “Lady Day.”

The song list is a tribute to Holiday’s career.  The score includes “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Somebody’s on My Mind,” “Easy Livin’” and “Deep Song.”

Included is the song that many consider Holiday’s anthem, “God Bless the Child.”   Holiday never had any children, which was a personal regret.   The unnerving song, and its haunting presentation, is a message that trumpets her life of fame and angst.

Of the play, McDonald said, “It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly. . . I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her –and what is fascinating in this show – is that there is never any self-pity.  She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been.  I don’t think she sees herself as a victim.  And she feels an incredible connection to her music – she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”
McDonald is nothing short of mesmerizing.  She enters as Holiday, performs as the tortured soul, getting more and more drunk as the show goes on, staggers off stage for a few minutes, and returns not only with her dog cradled in her arms, but one glove pulled down, with needle tracks clearly showing on the bare arm.  She continues the show in a stupor, babbling about her personal life, and finally stumbles out.

The production is meticulously directed by Lonny Price.  The pace, blocking and character interpretation are perfectly designed.

Shelton Becton, who serves as the conductor/pianist for the production, also proficiently fills in as Holiday’s pianist and protector.   His band, consisting of Clayton Craddock (drums), and George Farmer (bass), play “mighty fine.” For an extra treat, get to the theatre early and listen to the trio conduct a jazz concert before the play’s performance.

Pepi, the dog that McDonald cuddles with for a segment of the show, is a rescue dog named Roxie, who was trained to be in “Legally Blonde,” and then was cast in “Lady Day.”

McDonald has proven that she is not only a singer, but a fine actress.  She has  starred  in a range of Broadway shows such as “Ragtime,” “Master Class,” “Carousel,” and “Porgy and Bess.”  She has won five Tony Awards and is nominated for yet another for her performance in “Lady Day.”  She starred in a television version of “A Raisin in the Sun,” after winning a Tony for the stage production.  She won the 2008 Emmy  for her performance.

It has been reported that she will star, alongside Oprah Winfrey, in a Broadway revival of Marsha Norman’s “‘night Mother,” during the 2015-2016 season.
Capsule judgment:  “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is an amazing way to not only learn about Billie Holiday, get a lesson about the overt prejudices against Blacks during the mid-twentieth century, be exposed to jazz, but be captivated by Audra McDonald.  Yes, as one of the show’s songs says, “Somebody’s On My Mind.”  Actually two somebody’s:  Billie Holiday and Audra McDonald!
“Lady Day  at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” opened at the Circle in the Square, West 50th Street, on April 13, 2014, for a limited run which is scheduled to end on August 10.