Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 1, 2014

    The minute that Audra McDonald begins to sing we are transported – it is like something out of Star Trek – to Billie Holiday’s planet. The sound is so pure that it slams into you like a heat seeking missile. If you closed your eyes you could leave your body and travel back in time 50 or so years. Audra McDonald almost disappears when she sings as Lady Day - almost but not quite.

    This is a contrived bit of theatre pulled together to create something that never happened. While Holiday did perform at Emerson’s in south Philly, I cannot imagine it was anything like this. From the tapes I have seen of Ms. Holiday she was never as animated as McDonald portrays her. She was not snappy and filled with patter, especially at this point in her life, when she was six months from her death. She was sliding down into the pit from which she would never climb out.

    To McDonald’s credit she does get this point across in her performance. Holiday’s focus, when she is not singing, is on the location of her drink, which starts out as whiskey and changes over to vodka nearly straight from the bottle.

    While the story telling is contrived, like many one person history shows, the stories themselves are of interest. Holiday had a loyal friend in Artie Shaw with whom she toured the East Coast. She referred to her mother as “The Dutchess” and wrote God Bless The Child for her. Once upon a time she was 200 pounds and working in a whorehouse cleaning. She ran away from there and found a job as a singer in Harlem when she failed the job application for a dancer. After that life took off. Her devotion to Sonny Monroe led her to heroine – she wanted to try it to prove her love so that she would know what it was like for him. And that was that. And when she pleaded guilty for heroin possession to cover for Sonny everything fell apart. She lost her Cabaret Card for New York and could not play in the clubs she loved so much. The stories rattle on, and Holiday begins to disappear in front of our eyes.

    The audience stands and cheers of course, because that is what you do when a legend has been resurrected. But I was moved less by the performance and more by the thought of Holiday. The very sad road down which she journeyed is still being trod today, as evidenced by the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Tragedy is not confined to the artistic past.

    McDonald follows the script, such as it is, including handling the appearance of a small dog, as best she can. But it is her singing that is transcendent. In comparison to that the script fades away and the thrill of feeling as though you have become a time traveler is handed to you with a ribbon ties around it. That grace is entirely due to McDonald’s artistry. So Brava for that!

    (Tulis McCall)

    "With her plush, classically trained soprano scaled down to jazz-soloist size, Ms. McDonald sings selections from Holiday’s repertoire with sensitive musicianship and rich seams of feeling that command rapt admiration."
    Charles Isherwood for New York Times

    "Expectations are upended and exceeded the moment Audra McDonald opens her mouth. Her spellbinding tour de force turns a workmanlike show into something captivating, surprising and satisfying."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "In summoning a singer who was all about emotion, rhythm and phrasing, McDonald gives a performance as technical as anything she’s ever done."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "McDonald is a phenomenal performer. She takes her operatic-level voice and, remarkably, maneuvers it into a dead-on impersonation of Holiday's mellow, insinuating sound, with a perfect re-creation of Holiday's enunciation."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "Along with salty humor, joy, bitterness and plummeting despair, that sense of suffering as a constant companion permeates and elevates Lanie Robertson's slender yet affecting bio-play with music, crafted as a woozy late-night concert in the South Philly locale of the title, a few months before the singer's death."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "In more than a dozen songs, she (McDonald) captures the plaintive sound, the eccentric phrasing and all the little vocal catches that identify Billie Holiday’s unique style. But it’s her extraordinary sensitivity as an actor that makes McDonald’s interpretation memorable."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

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