Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – Circle in the Square, New York

Audra McDonald Picture:  Evgenia Eliseeva

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Circle in the Square Theatre, New York. Picture: Evgenia Eliseeva

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill continues at the Circle in the Square theatre, New York, until 1 June.

In an arresting note in the programme for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, playwright Lanie Robertson explains ‘Why I Wrote the Play’.

“In 1959,” it says, “a boyfriend of mine saw the great Billie Holiday in a little dive in North Philadelphia about three months before she died. He said she stumbled in obviously ‘quite high’. She and a piano player performed ten or 12 songs for an audience of seven patrons. Then, he said, she staggered out.

“The image of the world’s greatest jazz singer being so undervalued at the end of her life and career was an image that always haunted me.”

Writing the play, he says, “was an attempt to rid myself of that ghost”.

Nothing quite so depressing – or heartbreaking – is transmitted in the current Broadway revival of Robertson’s play, which first played Off-Broadway in 1987. Enthusiastic audience members, taking over the club’s tables in premium-priced seating, fill the make-believe Emerson’s just about to capacity (at least at the performance reviewed), while a theatre-full of other spectators look on. The three musicians on stage are well-dressed in gentlemanly fashion. And with a mirrored ball sending out sparks of coloured light across the theatre during musical numbers, this Emerson’s seems to be quite a traditional high-class boîte.

As for Holiday herself, yes, she is ‘high’, but she is also a personification of glamour in her clingy white gown, bordered in sparkles, and long white gloves. The trademark gardenias aren’t there at the start, but eventually she pins them in her hair. And the voice, the singing, is just about Holiday at her peak. There’s some familiar raspiness marking some notes, but the voice is strong, the distinctive inflections come out forcefully. So, what we have here is not so much a drama of a woman tragically sinking into the depths of life’s finale, but a mythic celebration of Holiday, of both her artistry and the resilience of her life as a black woman and black entertainer in racist America in the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s a celebration that melds the dazzling acting and vocal talents of one celebrated persona – five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald – within a marrow-deep channelling of the Holiday image. It‘s a majestic performance. There’s not a trace of McDonald’s classically trained soprano. The jazz feeling is totally authentic and the girlish playfulness and wrenching emotionality that can alternate through the songs are totally Holiday, while the musicianship is captivating.

McDonald sings about a dozen numbers, with highlights including impeccable renditions of two of Holiday’s signatures, ‘God Bless the Child’ and ‘Strange Fruit’. She receives fine accompaniment from Sheldon Becton, as a sympathetic pianist and leader of the trio, which also includes Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass.

In between songs, Holiday fills in the audience about her life: her childhood in Baltimore, where she worked scrubbing the outside stairs of a whorehouse; her beloved mother known as ‘Duchess’; some of the men who served as protectors and abusers; the indignities she suffered touring as a vocalist with the all-white Artie Shaw big band; and her conviction on drug use which lost her the right to perform in New York cabarets, cutting off the prime venue for her art. She is often frolicsome, sometimes wandering off the club’s little stage to chat directly with the audience at those premium-priced tables, but there are moments when a gin-fuelled anger takes over, either igniting a second of physical rage or almost paralysing her. At one point, she leaves the audience to go backstage, coming back with one of her gloves askew.

Lonnie Price has directed the show with a fine sense of shifting mood and rhythms. And he has an inspired coup de theatre for the closing, letting us feel the loss to music that came with Holiday’s death.

But with his staging that has Holiday/McDonald playing to a club filled with adoring fans, he can’t conjure the dark and dismal vision that playwright Robertson heard about from his friend. What Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is, ultimately, is a grand and finely-honed tribute to a member of the Jazz Parthenon from a member of Broadway royalty.

Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

Bullets Over Broadway – St James Theatre, New York – Review

If/Then – Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York – Review

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