It’s Audra McDonald’s world—we’re all still just living in it. For proof, swing by the Circle in the Square, where the reigning Queen of the Rialto holds court in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a late addition to this season’s Broadway calendar that showcases McDonald as jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Over 90 minutes, McDonald interprets more than a dozen of the combustible artist’s recordings, among them “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” The setting, a theatrical conceit, is a small bar in South Philly during spring 1959, a few months before Holiday will succumb to cirrhosis and heart failure.
McDonald will turn 44 one month after this year's Tony Awards—that was Holiday’s age when she died, and it’s the most obvious thing the pair have in common. That, and their velvety voices. There’s no amount of makeup wizardry or fine acting that can make McDonald appear anything other than lustrous, or at least near the condition Holiday, a heroin user, presumably found herself in during that final stage of her life.
Nonetheless, most of us would pay just to hear McDonald recite availability on the TKTS board, and her recreation of Holiday’s voice was just swell to my ear. Indeed, casual Holiday fans might have difficulty distinguishing the two. In song, McDonald crinkles her eyes and seems to swirl an imaginary marble around her mouth, evoking a woman parched for booze … which happens to be at hand right across the room—and this Ms. Holiday does not wait for a bartender when she’s thirsty.
Delightful though the songs are (another treat is “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” the early blues standard, also being heard in “Bullets Over Broadway”), the real pleasure in “Lady Day” is the patter, chronicling tales from Holiday’s life of evil men and bad breaks. It climaxes in a so-sad-it’s-funny story about touring with bandleader Artie Shaw in Alabama, when restaurants had segregated bathroom facilities (“I mean, my kidneys was almost to bust an' float me outta there right into the main dining room”).
The Circle’s stage is converted to a seating area filled with cabaret tables (the production design evokes past stagings of “Cabaret”). Theatergoers may find themselves forced into chivalry, as McDonald, feigning drunkenness, stumbles off her platform.
The five-time Tony winner is dressed in a strapless beaded gown and platform heels, with fingerless gloves to hide what would have been Holiday’s track marks. Her “accessories” include, at times, the gardenias Holiday would fasten in her hair, and a chihuahua, Pepi—a detail included by playwright Lainie Robertson, whose 1986 drama was informed by an actual performance Holiday gave in North Philly shortly before she died.
Lonny Price, McDonald’s frequent collaborator (“110 in the Shade”), directs. McDonald is joined on stage by a classic jazz trio, and she interacts throughout the night with accompanist Jimmy Powers (a genial and tolerant Shelton Becton, who bears the brunt of Holiday’s abuse). Ultimately, “Lady Day” should appeal to a broad cross-section of theatergoers—you don’t need a vast familiarity with Billie Holiday to enjoy the show, and McDonald gives another powerful and distinct performance.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” through June 1 at Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St. Tickets: $97-$250. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn