By: Sandi Durell
It was uncanny when five time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald opened her mouth as the iconic Billie Holiday, set four months before her death in Philadelphia’s dilapidated Emerson’s Bar & Grill in 1959.
Looking voluptuous and beautiful in a long white strapless gown with sequin sparkles and long white gloves (to hide the needle tracks), I was wondering how the gorgeous soprano would/could possibly interpret the dark, craggy subtleties of Holiday’s unique voice and sound. But I was quickly shocked into another reality when Ms. McDonald made her way onto the small stage through a cabaret setting on the floor level of the Circle in the Square Theater where patrons sat at tables drinking, a bar on the opposite end (created by James Noone). On the stage are her musicians Jimmy Powers (played by Shelton Bectin) with drummer Clayton Craddock and bass player George Farmer. As she launched into “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” followed by “When a Woman Loves a Man,” I closed my eyes and was sure I was hearing the rare inflections, slurred lyric and intonations that were so very specific to the troubled, alcohol and heroin addicted Billie Holiday.
Holiday spent these last months of her career back in Philly in order to perform in cabaret after release from jail on drug possession charges. She did perform at Carnegie Hall and on Broadway in NYC but her cabaret license had been revoked leaving her distraught, unable to sing in the little boites she loved the most.
In Lanie Robertson’s revival of the 1986 piece, 90 minutes goes by like a blink of the eye, as Ms. McDonald relates Billie’s tragic story of growing up with ‘The Dutchess’ – her mother only a few years older than she, working at age 16 at what was supposed to be a maid’s job at Ms. Dean’s Parlour, but was instead a cathouse where she ‘entertained’ the male customers; a rape at age 10, and the horrors of bigotry in the South while traveling and singing with Artie Shaw’s Orchestra; waiting on the bus until the band brought her on as the singer and pissing on the floor of a fancy nightclub because there was no facility for blacks other than a bathroom for the men.
Holiday selected songs moment to moment, depending on her emotional ups and downs, which is eerily duplicated in this performance, as she slugs down more and more gin, takes a break for a heroin fix by the ‘doctor’ backstage, her speech pattern slurring but always being reminded by Jimmy to give the audience what they came for – – the songs they craved.
And so we hear the great Holiday standards “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer),” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Easy Livin’,” the unsettling “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child” and other classics “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and an all too shortened “Don’t Explain.” She talks about her first husband Sonny who turned her on to drugs, about wanting to be married and have kids as she rambles on, her stupor worsening as she spirals downward, at one point falling into the small cabaret audience who lift her up. She even brings out her sweet pet Chihuahua Pepi (played by Roxie, a rescue).
Ms. McDonald looks too sophisticated and regal but that thought quickly fades and is replaced by the ingenious and mesmerizing interpretation she gives to the icon with brilliant directorial credit to Lonny Price. Could this be a sixth Tony waiting?
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs thru Jne 1st at Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway at 50th Street, 212 239-6200 www.telecharge.com
This show will be opening end of June at Wyndams Theatre in London: http:londontheatres.co.uk/#venue/wyndhams-theatre
*Photos: Evgenia Eliseeva