Audra McDonald, who has won more Tonys than any other actress, five at last count, is looking seriously at her sixth, for her superb rendition of the doomed & dying Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille.” McDonald, always masterful, here touches the sublime in a superb interpretation the late, jazz great Holiday.
Watching, and hearing, this silken voice soar over the rainbow, is beyond the beyond. And watching a great singer and a great actress at the absolute peak of her vocal and dramatic prowess is a great, great privilege and a pleasure second to none. McDonald has captured lightning in a bottle.
The legendary MacDonald has an operatic range and Julliard training and was simply magnificent as Bess in “Porgy and Bess”, in what was, up til then, the performance of her career.
Now, she’s done the impossible and topped herself, with her heart-rending, scintillating, melodious “Lady Day.”
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” is named that for a very specific reason. We here see Billie Holiday right near the end of her drug-addicted and booze-fueled life. She was dead at 44. And Emerson’s Bar and Grille was one of the only places she could play after being imprisoned in New York City for drugs. And it’s in Philadelphia, a town she hates.
“I don’t care if I go to heaven or to hell, as long as it’s not Philadelphia” she says.
She lost her license to perform in New York City clubs because of her prison time. Even though she could and did sing at Carnegie Hall, she couldn’t practice her art in nightclubs.
Her sad, sad life is enlivened and elevated, of course, when she sings. And MacDonald has captured the exact timbre and tone and the tremendous pain behind all of Holiday’s singing. And also the singer’s utter joy in her music.
McDonald has won Five Tonys and is celebrated and lauded wherever she goes. starring on Broadway and in concerts. And she restricts her vocal stylings to exactly match Holiday’s very limited range. But her voice flies up to rapturous emotional heights as Holiday’s did. I felt like I was watching a moonbeam sing.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” is a very strange cocktail of a play and a musical. It’s really both, and it calls upon McDonald to go places onstage that she’s never been asked to go before. But go there, she does. As she continues to sing and interact with the admiring throng, she is also going to pieces right in front of us.
She literally staggers on to the Circle in the Square stage, from the back room of Emerson’s Bar and Grille, where she was clearly soused to the gills as the play opens, and McDonald weaves her way through the assembled cocktail tables where much of the audience is seated, as if it were a for-real nightclub. She staggers and needs help mounting the stage and sings a couple of upbeat numbers, before she halts her act, to inform the audience of her tragic back story. Her cleaning the steps of a Baltimore whorehouse, and actually working in some herself before she started singing.
She keeps cursing the man in her life who got her hooked on drugs, and now she’s helplessly in the death throes of her addiction, and there’s nothing she can do about it.It isn’t pretty, but Audra McDonald makes it beautiful beyond belief.
She even staggers back through the audience to leave the stage completely to her confused and dismayed musical trio, who vamp until she returns, having clearly shot up in the back room of Emerson’s Bar and Grille.
She wears long white gloves to cover the track marks, and one of them is dangerously slipping and MacDonald returns to the stage glistening with sweat all over, as junkies do. Her bare shoulders slightly soaked and beautiful face sweaty & screwed up into that all-too-familiar, self-satisfied smile of inner glee that junkies have immediately after they get high.This moment was so accurately portrayed, it was chilling.
McDonald builds her definitive portrait of this damaged artist detail by detail, describing one shocking racial incident after the other, so that by the time she sings her signature song, “Strange Fruit” she becomes an unforgettable mixture of pain and beauty.
The song, of course, describes a lynching she has witnessed in the South.
But the joy in this great spirit is incandescent. And a performance of this caliber is so high and so rare, don’t by any means miss it. You’ll never forget it.