THEATER REVIEW: Audra McDonald Shines in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill Audra McDonald plays Billie Holiday at Circle in the Square. (Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

When Billie Holiday sang, history attests, her audiences tended to clam up. Even in the bustling nightclubs where she mostly performed, Holiday often insisted on total quiet before she would open her mouth. The quiet usually held, as one of the great singers of the last century turned jazz songs and standards into searching, and searing, portraits of life and love gone wrong that cast a shimmering spell.

When Audra McDonald takes to the stage and pours her heart into her voice in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a similar sustained hush settles over the Circle in the Square, where the show opened on Broadway on Sunday night for a limited run. 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.

Although Ms. McDonald, a five-time Tony winner and an accomplished recitalist, has her own natural authority onstage, in this show, she submerges her identity in Holiday’s as an act of loving tribute to an artist whose difficult career exacted a painful price. Holiday is as well known now for the grim travails of her short life — she died at the age of 44, her voice spent, her body destroyed by addiction to alcohol and heroin — as she is revered for the legacy of recordings she left behind.

We hear much (too much) of this sorry story during the show, written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, and first produced Off Broadway in 1986. The year is 1959, just months before Holiday died, and the show is set at the club of the title in Philadelphia, a city that, as Holiday notes, she had reason to loathe. It was the site of her trial and conviction for drug possession, which led to a stint in prison and the revoking of her New York cabaret card, limiting her opportunities to perform in the city during the latter years of her career.

“I used to tell everybody: When I die, I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell,” Holiday says ruefully as the show opens, “long’s it ain’t in Philly.”

Backed by a trio of excellent musicians — Shelton Becton on piano, Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass — Ms. McDonald performs more than a dozen songs, including several of Holiday’s best-known tunes (“What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “God Bless the Child,” “T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do”). In between, she delivers a scattered autobiographical monologue that touches on most of the familiar highs and lows of Holiday’s life: her uneasy, often abusive relationships with men; her complicated relationship with her mother; the racism that dogged her tour with the white bandleader Artie Shaw; her reverence for her two musical idols, the blues singer Bessie Smith and the jazz singer and trumpet player Louis Armstrong.

Mr. Robertson has created a persuasive voice for these reflections, salty and sassy, occasionally flaring into hot bursts of anger, and prone to gin-fueled digressions. Ms. McDonald moves between the moods with a jittery sharpness, conveying the warmth and humor in bright, glowing bursts that can quickly subside into dark, bitter ruminations on the wayward, reckless groove into which her life gradually fell.

The play’s conceit is, frankly, artificial and a bit hoary. A victim of severe stage nerves, Holiday preferred to sing in a tight spotlight so she couldn’t even see the audience, and would at no point in her career have been likely to dish up her life for public consumption in such a way. (This season’s other Holiday tribute show — “Lady Day,” with Dee Dee Bridgewater, seen Off Broadway in the fall — was set during a rehearsal, giving it a marginally more plausible dramatic structure.)

As Holiday sloshes back booze, and later leaves the stage to return with one of her long white gloves dangling tellingly from a now-exposed arm, the show devolves into a semi-ghoulish portrait of a woman in sad extremis, slurring through a truncated version of “Don’t Explain” — one of her most quietly devastating songs, which I was sorry not to hear rendered fully by Ms. McDonald. So, groan: Another night of dead-celebrity dysfunction served up as entertainment. (To cheer herself — and us — up, Holiday brings onstage her little dog, which she cradles lovingly under an arm.)

Still, it’s worth putting up with the show’s tackier (and duller) aspects for the pleasure of hearing Ms. McDonald breathe aching life into some of Holiday’s greatest songs. She has tamped down the lush bloom of her voice to suggest the withered state of Holiday’s instrument during the last years of her career, but the sound remains tangy, expressive and rich. (A true rendition of the voice at this juncture would be too excruciating to hear.)

Holiday’s almost girlish timbre, darkened by age and use, and her tremulous vibrato are evoked with an eerie exactitude, and the dramatic moans, sliding downward in pitch on climactic notes in songs like “Strange Fruit,” are replicated with startling precision. It’s a delight, too, to hear Ms. McDonald get to swing on some of the up-tempo numbers, like “Moonlight” and “Nobody’s Business.” She also dawdles a little behind the beat on some numbers, as Holiday sometimes did, without ever distorting the shape of the music.

The bloodletting heartbreakers are, of course, the most mesmerizing performances: the rueful “God Bless the Child,” the harrowing protest song “Strange Fruit.” Ms. McDonald’s career has been in many ways a blessed one (five Tonys at just 43, when Holiday was nearing her end), but by burrowing into the music and channeling Holiday’s distinctive sound, she has forged a connection with the great, doomed artist she is portraying that feels truthful and moves well beyond impersonation into intimate identification. When she sings, there appears before us the ghostly image of an artist who could only find equilibrium in her life when she lost herself in her music.

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