Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill     The Circle In The Square Theatre     16 April 2014

It was the original cast recording of the Broadway premiere of Ragtime that first introduced me to the glorious, warm and utterly beguiling full soprano tones of Audra McDonald. Her Sarah was luminous, extraordinary, radiant.

It was some years later, when she was starring in 110 in the Shade, that I first saw her perform live. She was intoxicating in every way. Her character there bore no resemblance to Sarah from Ragtime and her approach vocally was different too. She was, however, to use an apt colloquial expression, fierce. Passionate, gentle, funny and complex – and she sang in a way which gave fresh excitement to every bar of the score.

She was last on Broadway in the revival of Porgy and Bess and, once again, she was explosively, impossibly good – finding the sensuous ungovernable heart of the character and every nuance in the short road between happiness and desolation. Her soaring Soprano dealt effortlessly with the inherent difficulty of Summertime and she devoured every other part of the score, exuding a tempestuous passion that was thrilling to watch.

With five Tony awards under her belt, her range and versatility is exceptional. She does seem capable of doing it all and she has a voice of astonishing flexibility, life, timbre and power. There are few roles in the repertoire she could not tackle.

Now playing at The Circle in the Square on Broadway is Lonny Price’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. It’s a one Act representation of the final tragic phase of the life of the great Billie Holiday.

Written by Laine Robertson, the piece imagines a late night 1959 cabaret show at a well known Philadelphia hot spot. But rather than present an imagined version of actual events, Robertson really provides a stream of consciousness, a swirl of patter, song, bitter tears and stark penetrating silences which, taken as a whole, present a shatteringly insightful spotlight on the unhappy and deeply tragic demise of one of the world’s greatest jazz singers.

From the moment she enters the auditorium, slightly stumbling and talking to herself, McDonald is irresistible. Then, when she sings I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone, she astonishes. There is not the slightest trace of her real voice, the voice we have heard many times before, the rich, resonant, assured soprano.

Entirely gone.

In its place is the voice of Billie Holiday. It is a miraculous recreation of the particular and very individual sound and style with which Holiday entranced her fans. McDonald does not just sing like Holiday, she sings as Holiday, every broken phrase, fractured rhythm, breathy catch in her voice – with unerring skill she recreates the power and the passion that made Holiday such a singular experience. And she does it all without any hint of her real voice, her real persona.

Her renditions of Strange Fruit and T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do are unimaginably good.

Nothing really can prepare one for this performance. It is in a whole new category. It’s not a recreation or a reimagining – it seems more like a reincarnation. Because it is fresh, full of pain and surprise, delicate and brutal – and completely mesmerising. Transcendent.

McDonald nails every nuance, every movement, every slurred slap of dialogue, every spiteful or recriminating tale, every slug of gin… Everything.

She bravely goes amongst the audience and this leads to impromptu moments – but Holiday is always there, nothing causes a lapse or an out of character moment.

 

Some sequences are incredibly painful: when she comes back into the Bar having run away from her audience, clutching her small dog, her left glove pushed back and grimy on her palm, the heroin tracks exposed, revealing her private torments, I don’t think anyone in the audience took a breath. It was incredibly powerful.

She is funny too. There are several stories which reveal a colourful life and an irrepressible woman who could not stand fools.

It’s a rich and frighteningly powerful piece of theatre.

James Noone’s design is perfect too. One wall contains emblems of the period – instruments, other stars, gowns. They provide a luminous backdrop to Holiday’s memories.

And at its centre, at the height of her considerable powers, Audra McDonald is blazing with talent and genius.

Totally unmissable.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.