Update: We are pleased to announce that Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, starring Audra McDonald, is transferring to London, June 25-September 3, 2016. Details here.
As you enter New York’s Circle in the Square, you are faced with the stage floor transformed into a small cabaret in which a jazz trio is entertaining some 30 or 40 people seated at table clothed tables, some sipping wine, some beer, some cocktails. These are the Premium seat buyers who are very close to the slightly raised stage on which the musicians play, and on which ultimately Lady Day, the legendary Billie Holiday, will act out her story and sing us her songs.
Emerson’s Bar is small, on the corner of Fifteenth and Bainbridge Streets in South Philadelphia. It’s after midnight on a night in March 1959, and it is equally late in Billie Holiday’s life. The program tells us that four months from now she will die of cirrhosis and heart failure in a hospital in Harlem on Friday, July 17, 1959. Clearly we are about to witness her last public performance.
The pianist Jimmy Powers steps to the microphone and introduces the lady. We, the general public are seated front, back and center of the stage, and from the rear there is an entrance through which Audra McDonald, dressed in flowing white, appears. She floats through the audience on the cabaret floor, drink in hand, and instantly we are transported.
We were wrong – this is not Audra McDonald – this is Billie Holiday. Her hair, her face, her makeup, her gown, and finally her voice are all Holiday. When she finally makes it to the mic, she greets us, and eventually she eases into “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” from the Holiday repertoire. Remarkable. It’s pure Billie, doesn’t vaguely resemble McDonald’s rich mellow mezzo-soprano. No, it’s higher, more delicate, her words are dipped in honeysuckle and mint which must have come from her beginnings in Baltimore, though some of it must have come from the lazy way in which she interpreted the jazz of the day, slowing it down and giving it weight by having time to play with the words, to truly tell stories. Some called her the greatest jazz singer ever, even when she was beginning in her early twenties.
Devoted to her mother, whom she called “the Duchess” because she herself had picked up the sobriquet “Lady Day” early on, and she figured a Lady’s mother would have to be a Duchess. Both names stuck for life.
In Lanie Robertson’s play with music, McDonald brings us sixteen songs plus some very telling monologues and dialog which make the evening into a play, not a musical. Robertson’s words are colloquial and real, and they give McDonald help in creating a rich full character. She has scenes with Jimmy Powers (beautifully played by Shelton Becton) and lots of stories which give background and substance to the songs as she rolls them out. There is a sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, but it is unobtrusive, and the sound of the jazz trio sounds deliciously live.
“God Bless The Child”, which follows the story of how she wrote it for her mother soon after she died, is given much more meaning as an afterbirth of that very painful loss. “When A Woman Loves A Man” now relates to her first husband, who wasn’t good at much, but she never found someone she loved more. “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” informs her need for affection and physical contact. “Strange Fruit” has great impact as we know that Billie has herself witnessed such a lynching. There are lighter moments too as she handles even her mistakes with humor. “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” is the story of a strong woman with knowledge of who she is.
So it goes for 90 magnificent minutes. There’s not a false note. We are witness to the end of a tragic figure, one who was weak enough to succumb to the heroin and alcohol addiction she met through one of her four husbands. She claimed that what she always wanted was a house, a nice house, and a family. But she was a survivor for a time, a fighter to the end, and we come to care that she never achieved either.
Music became her world and she loved to sing, as she proves to us on this night when she can barely make it happen. Her voice is there in all its glory – until it isn’t. At one point she finishes a number just mouthing the words. At another she can’t even remember them. Sometimes she stops abruptly and her next move is always a surprise. She may switch to another tune, she may ask for help from Jimmy Powers, on whom she has come to rely more and more, for she knows he will always be there for her. She makes use of her cabaret audience, occasionally wandering among them, touching a shoulder, mooching a smoke, dropping a glass and later picking it up. To watch McDonald work this room, and when back on stage holding on to the rest of us, is pure magic. Hers is a towering performance, one right up there with the best I’ve seen. There have been other stunning performances in this very rich season for actors, but from her entrance to her final devastating moment, Audra McDonald’s isn’t a performance — she just is Billie Holiday, and it will not be forgotten by anyone fortunate enough to see it.
Mr. Robertson’s words support her all the way, and he writes without sentiment to create a powerful play for a great star who inhabits it in miraculous fashion. With one actress, little scenery and three very helpful musicians, she and it move us far more than the gigantic productions with full orchestra and tremendous casts that have preceded it on the recent Broadway boards.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is onstage through August 10, 2014 at Circle in the Square Theatre, W. 50th St between Broadway & 8th Ave, NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.