You may have thought you missed your chance to see the legendary Billie Holiday perform live, but her voice and spirit are brought to life through the extraordinary gifts of Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill.
Five-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald returns to Broadway to take on the role of the legendary Billie Holiday in the Broadway premiere of Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, recounting Holiday's life story through the songs that made her famous, including"God Bless the Child", "What a Little Moonlight Can Do", "Strange Fruit" and "Taint Nobody's Bis-ness". In 1959, Holiday puts on a show in a small intimate bar in Philadelphia that unbeknownst to the audience, will leave them witness to one of the last performances of her lifetime. Through her poignant voice, one of tthe greatest jazz singers of all-time shares personal tales of difficult choice, bad breaks, worse men and some of the most glorious songs ever written.
Entering through the theater doors of Circle in the Square you are transported back to 1959 south Philadelphia inside Emersons Bar and Grill thanks to the simple scenic design by James Noone. A jazz trio sets the mood as drinks are poured to a few patrons seated at cocktail tables on the floor below the stage. A light veil of smoke dances against the ambient blue lighting filling the room. Soon Billie Holiday (Audra McDonald) enters and takes the stage.
To say that McDonald embraces the essence of Lady Day is an understatement. If you are familiar with McDonald's gorgeous voice and elegant stage presence, you will not recognize her in this role; McDonald disappears and Holiday is materialized. Close your eyes and you hear the haunting and unmistakable voice of Billie Holiday. Gazing at McDonald in a white strapless gown (a Billie Holiday classic look) by Esosa, it is sometimes necessary to remind yourself that Miss Holiday herself is not standing in front of you. Look at her closely and it is impossible to find any reminents of Audra. Everything from her posture, to her cloudy speech to her drooping eyes is wrapped and delivered to the audience as the most authentic depiction of Billie Holiday with ease. This may easily be some of the best acting Broadway has ever seen.
Lanie Robertson's book is heartbreaking while offering some smiles along the way. It is an honest form of storytelling that allows the audience to see Holiday through a transparent magnifying glass, enhanced by the casual direction of Lonny Price. Robert Wierzel's lighting design enhances the emotional journey of the storyline, often using the stark white dress McDonald is wearing as a canvas to paint on. Tim Weil's stylistic lounge-like orchestrations are performed flawlessly by conductor/pianist Shelton Becton (also appearing as Jimmy Powers), Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass. If you love live jazz music you will adore the sights and sounds of Emerson's Bar and Grill.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill will captivate you with it's classic music, aching story and authentic delivery. Make sure you see it - this one could be Miss McDonald's 6th Tony!.
Review By: Staci Morin
Photos By: Evgenia Eliseeva & Picasa