Watching Audra McDonald inhabit jazz legend Billie Holiday is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Lanie Robertson’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” has been around for decades — Missouri Repertory Theatre staged a memorable version in the early 1990s — so we can only wonder why it took so long for a major Broadway star to tackle Robertson’s evocative piece.
Envisioned as a 1959 nightclub appearance just months before Holiday’s death, Robertson’s play occupies a unique slot. It’s not exactly musical theater, and it’s not quite a one-woman show. Billie interacts with her pianist, Jimmy Powers, who with patience and affection tries to keep the singer focused as her performance gradually deteriorates into a succession of rambling memories delivered with slurred diction and startling candor.
To watch the classically trained McDonald immerse herself in this late-stage version of Holiday is to see a great stage actress show us what she can do.
McDonald is one of the most poised and elegant musical theater stars you’ll ever see, but this gritty performance may alter the way theatergoers view her as an actress. McDonald has five Tony Awards for work in both musicals and plays. This show could deliver her sixth.
Nobody could argue that it would be undeserved. Robertson’s play incorporates plenty of music, but each selection and the nature of its performance is carefully positioned to advance Robertson’s aim — to create a portrait of a uniquely gifted singer who deserved a better life than the one decreed by fate. McDonald delicately traverses Robertson’s dramatic arc.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this show is McDonald’s ability to capture Holiday’s sound. Billie intuitively invented a style of phrasing that nobody had heard before, and her vocal performances became models for many other singers — not the least of which was Frank Sinatra. McDonald nails it, recreating Holiday’s breathy but intense delivery and baby-talk speech patterns. The sound emanates from her throat, not her chest.
The bigger challenge of this role is maintaining that delicate balance between emotional honesty and the technical vocal demands, whether Holiday is singing or speaking. Robertson’s script has Holiday inebriated when she takes the stage. She continues drinking during the performance and at one point excuses herself to her dressing room for a quick heroin high.
McDonald’s performance creates the illusion of spontaneity at every moment as Holiday’s motor control suffers. She slurs certain words incoherently when she can do so without sacrificing the emotional intent of the line, and she peppers her delivery with asides that may or may not be in the script. Some of these are brutally comic.
During the course of the play we revisit a series of traumatic or bittersweet experiences in Holiday’s life — her childhood rape, the teenage years spent in a whorehouse, her friendship with the great Lester Young, her painful relationship with her mother and the support she received from Artie Shaw when she toured with his band through the segregated South.
This production, directed by Lonny Price, places the nightclub stage at one end of the oval Circle in the Square performance area, where a crack jazz trio warms up the audience before McDonald’s entrance. As Jimmy Powers, musical director/pianist Shelton Becton handles himself well as a low-key actor.
The area in front of the nightclub stage is filled with theatergoers seated at high-dollar cabaret tables, and on more than one occasion McDonald leaves the stage and roams through the “club audience,” occasionally interacting with the patrons in small, memorable ways.
Make no mistake: This is no feel-good show. But the effect of Robertson’s piece when you have a great actress playing Holiday achieves a surprising duality. Yes, it’s a tragedy. But it also ascends to an affirmation of life. Let’s call it grim but inspiring.
As Billie says more than once, the only time she really feels alive is when she sings. This play is about art — and its power to inspire and deliver us from misery, if even for a moment.
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