Sunday, April 20, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill with Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald. Photo:Evgenia Eliseeva
Audra McDonald is Incarnation of Billie Holiday
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. See video below.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Language
-- Adult material

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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