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Audra McDonald Soars In the Sublime “Lady Day”

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.

Downton Abbey Season 3 ~ Ep.6 ~ There Are Fairies at the Bottom of the Abbey

SPOILER! SPOILERS! AND MORE SPOILERS! ALERT!

CODE VIOLET!

Or rather, as she’s called by some of her family, Cousin Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) was in full purple sail in Ep.6, the penultimate episode of “Downton Abbey” Season 3. Yes, dear readers, dear Downtonians, Season 3 is ending next week. *sob*sigh*sharp intake of breath* Alas!

Quality television is sooo rare these days and “Downton Abbey”s got it. In Spades.

And in the dreamy episode 6, Cousin Violet prompts Cousin Isobel to say “Have you changed your pills?” In one delicious set-to after the other, over Uber-social reformer Cousin Isobel’s (the superb Penelope Wilton) wanting to maintain former prostitute and former Downton maid, Ethel, as her cook and house-keeper.Shocking!

MEANWHILE!

Rob James-Collier’s sinister bad boy and head valet Thomas comes out of the shadows and is really at the center of this magnificent episode, which is, yes, an exploration of the attitudes towards homosexuality in the unenlightened Roaring 20s. In Post War Downton, everyone downstairs seemed to be roaring at Thomas. So bad Thomas, become poor gay Thomas and overwhelming sympathetic.

Thomas’ redemption began in Ep. 5 as he broke down crying at the death of Lady Sybil in childbirth in Ep.4. Rob James-Collier’s breakdown was as involving and empathetic and it was surprising in its’ power. “She didn’t even know I was alive!” he sobs “She was the only one who was nice to me!”

The death of Lady Sybil is going to be an ever-occuring and equivalent touchstone to the”Upstairs Downstairs” death of Lady Marjorie on the Titanic. Everything from now on will keep referring back to the untimely death of the lovely Lady Sybil at 24 years of age.

One keeps coming back to the fact of “Why? Why did they kill her off in such unceremonious, but incredibly compelling dramatic fashion?” And I keep coming up with the answer Well, she couldn’t act very well, so what else were they going to do with her?

With her abrupt passing, Tom Branson, the stupendous Alan Leech has really come into his own as the grieving father, former chauffeur and left-behind Irish son-in-law, who, in this episode begins to take over the running of the estate. He’s the new manager. And as magnificently played by Leech, he’s also becoming a very major character and dare I
say it? A heart-throb.

Which brings me back to the other emerging male star of Season 3, Rob James-Collier’s Thomas, who in this wonderful and also horrifying episode is called upon to play depths of emotion, his character has never been called upon to play so far. There are layers upon layers of dreadful humiliation as his frustrated gay feelings have nowhere to goand get him in to terrible trouble this episode.

Led on by the devilish Miss O’Brien, a former friend, Thomas thinks that Jimmy(Ep Speleers), the flirty footman is infatuated with him.

And so one night, he attempts a very beautiful kiss of the sleeping footman, the gorgeous Jimmy, who awakens and threatens to punch Thomas’s headlights out.

This disturbance is witnessed by the witless Alfred Nugent, and is reported upon by both Alfred and Jimmy to the Head Butler the super proper, Mr. Carson, who is revolted. And calls Thomas in to tell him he’s “foul” among other choice insults as he prepares to fire him. Thomas movingly says as he’s leaving”I may not be like you. But I’m not foul.”

And the major plot now revolves in this gripping episode of what are they going to do with Poor Gay one-handed Thomas?

James-Collier really proves himself to be a considerable actor as he is called upon by the brilliant, subtle script to play all the levels of loneliness, hurt, heart-break and degradation that homosexuals of that time, and earlier, were subjected to.

Oscar Wilde’s name was mentioned and that scandal that landed Wilde in jail in the Gay ’90s, was a mere two decades earlier than Downton’s time of 1920. And Thomas is constantly threatened with jail for his innocent, aborted kiss. As Wilde was. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment at hard labor because he was gay. It ruined his health and destroyed his talent.

And of course, who is behind all these machinations? Thomas’ former partner-in-crime Miss O’Brien, the wicked witch of Downton, who, I’m happy to say, does get her comeuppance quite grandly at the end of these two hours of television glory.

Oh! And Bates gets out of jail! I almost forgot! And it is in Bates’ and Anna’s new home, a cozy little cottage on the estate, bien sur, that we watch them happily refurbish as poor, gay, lonely Thomas sinks deeper and deeper into depression and hopelessness that the wicked trap, ,which evil Miss O’Brien has set for him snaps shut.

There is a saving punch-line to all this, but neither Bates nor Anna knows what it means, and why it causes Miss O’Brien so suddenly to heel, bitch.

And the words that brought her down off her broom=stick and back to earth with a resounding thud?

“Her Ladyship’s bar of soap”.

Anyone who has been watching since Season One will know what that means, but it’s too complicated and dastardly to explain here.

As I have to also comment on Lady Edith’s emerging career as a newspaper columnist! Laura Carmichael also outdoes herself in this episode and she begins, through writing to find herself. I could identify.

It also takes this busy, jam-packed episode to London, where she is chaperoned by her Aunt Rosamond, Lady Painswyck. And so we get to see more of that delightful character. who is the Dowager(Maggie Smith)’s smart London daughtet, and watch with unalloyed joy as Lady Edith, the mouse of the glamorous Grantham family, begins to assert and find herself through journalism! A column! She becomes a blogger, Roaring ’20’s style, and of course, her editor falls in love with her.

Laura Carmichael is magnificent as she goes from the recently jilted bride, left at the altar in Ep.2, and we delight in her triumph as she becomes the butterfly that was still in the cocoon at Downton and begins to spread her wings ~ a bit. Though she is still very shy and proper. And she can’t believe people are responding to her writing! I know how that feels!

ANOTHER wonderful Downton episode, two hours of heaven, then next week, two more hours and it will be gone until next season. And yes, there is going to be a season 4 and maybe much, much more according to a Vanity Fair article on Julian Fellowes, whose brilliant and sole creation this is. He does all the writing of all the episodes of all the seasons himself! It’s all him! It amazes me!

Because that almost never is allowed to happen in American television, which is why British television is so superior to ours almost always. Because the British have this thing about “The Writer” and it’s called respect. And it’s a beautiful thing.

“Downton Abbey” which is becoming the most successful series ever on PBS, can be seen on Sundays at 9pm on Ch.13 in New York and is rebroadcast on Monday at 1am. Or rather Tuesday morning at 1am. It can also be seen on Ch.21 WLIW on Mondays at 8pm.Don’t miss it!

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