|Audra McDonald. Photo:Evgenia Eliseeva|
By Lauren Yarger
Is it possible that Audra McDonald (Showboat, Porgy and Bess, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, Carousel, Master Class) will walk off with her sixth Tony Award for her portrayal of jazz/blues singer Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill? If Tonys are given for the best performance I have seen this year, then yes, she just might. McDonald is packing them in over at Circle in the Square Theatre and creating an incarnation of the legendary, but tragic woman.
The soprano alters the sound of her voice and adopts mannerisms of Holiday as she shares stories from her life, sings songs and slowly sinks into the characters deterioration as booze and drugs take over.
The theater's floor is transformed into the Philadelphia club with a bar and some table-and-chair seating on the floor (scenic design by James Noone) with lighting that sets the mood designed by Robert Wierzel. The singer interacts with audience members and takes center stage with her band: Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton on piano), Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass.
The tragic story of of Holiday's life is told (in a repetitive script by Lanie Robertson that sometimes sounds too much like a history lesson) as she bonds with the audience. It's not hard to understand why Holiday relies on a steady stream of drinks and heroin to dull the pain as she relates tales of sexual abuse, racial discrimination and loss. This performance, in March 1959, is set four months before the singer would die of cirrhosis and heart failure. In between the sad stories are 15 songs -- and a visit from her cute little dog, Pepi (Roxie, trained by William Berloni). It's a mesmerizing 90 minutes without intermission.
McDonald, directed by Lonny Price, is fascinating to watch as she transforms into Holiday and becomes a character totally unlike any other I have seen her portray. I enjoyed the performance even though I'm not a particular fan of Holiday's music and found the story sad and somewhat depressing. I solicited the opinion of my companion who is a big fan. He was amazed and felt McDonald had "channeled" Holiday. Under the influence, Holiday takes a tumble, and McDonald makes it look so natural for the character, that I feared for her ankle.
This production has been extended through Aug. 10 at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., NYC. http://ladydayonbroadway.com/. See video below.
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