Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

I remember how the ads for the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues” boldly declared “Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday.” Well, Ross gave a wonderful performance, and her singing of Holiday’s songs was some sort of career peak, to be sure, but Billie Holiday she wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

The claim can most definitely be made for Audra McDonald, however, for she thoroughly inhabits the real Holiday. Yes, Audra McDonald of the silky smooth soprano and the mistress of the show tune is giving one of the most astonishing vocal impersonations I’ve ever heard, and the miracle is that it doesn’t come across as a stunt, but truly organic to the character of the tottering woman trying to hold it together for a fictional one-night stand in Philadelphia near the end of her life.

Lanie Robertson’s play was first done in 1986 with Lonette McKee as Holiday. It’s directed here by Lonny Price who has frequently directed McDonald. Once again, the team has struck gold.

Between songs from the Holiday catalog – “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Easy Livin’, and “Don’t Explain” – Robertson has Holiday discoursing on her life working in a brothel, her mother (affectionately nicknamed “The Duchess”), her early rape, drug arrests and imprisonment, her tour with Artie Shaw, and the first husband Jimmy “Sonny” Monroe who got her hooked on heroin, and the influence of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong on her singing style. McDonald’s woozy recitation of these career points is masterfully done. And vocal excellence aside, this is as fine a dramatic performance as the five-time Tony winner has ever given.

She tells us how tired she is of having to sing “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” but eventually is cajoled into doing them, and they are predictably searing. The latter is sensibly placed after she tells a pathetically funny story of not being allowed to use the ladies’ room in an Alabama club with Shaw's band.

James Noone has cannily transformed Circle in the Square into the Philadelphia bar where, in fact, Holiday actually performed. Some members of the audience sit at tables, and at times, McDonald weaves through the audience interacting with them, but never breaking character. There’s a bar behind the tables where Holiday makes her way at one point to pour herself a stiff drink.

Throughout, she’s outfitted in a stunning white gown by Esosa.

McDonald is accompanied by a stellar trio, including Shelton Becton as her pianist Jimmy Powers (with Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass) who perform a scene-setting set before the show begins.

Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design is first-rate, with McDonald perfectly amplified and never distorted wherever she wanders on the stage or off.

(Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway, or 212-239-6200)
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