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Audra McDonald Is Lady Day


PS Classics

Seen in person, with strong performers, compelling biographical theatre pieces recreating musical figures, using their established catalogue, can be dazzling. But such shows are faced with a special and different test when it comes to experiencing them solely as audio recordings. As far as sounding a great deal like the real deal, it can be described as a "damned if you do/ damned if you don't" dilemma. We've faced this with numerous musicalizations of real-life characters, such as recent seasons looking at The Four Seasons, Carole King, Judy Garland, and Peter Allen, whereas past shows looking at such entertainers as Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker gave us original scores and actors with their own takes. Jolson bios have had it both ways. If performers have captured or cloned the sound and timbre, with intentionally similar phrasing, stylizings, and arrangements, it may be an impressive re-creation and illusion onstage, but is it redundant? Such an argument can be made, especially when the authentic, definitive recordings of the originator are still in print and the collection of fans. If it's a pale imitation of the sound, without fresh ideas to give it new life, who really would choose the watered-down tea to taste repeatedly instead?

The double-disc set Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill brings us Audra McDonald as iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in the last year of her troubled life. She sure sounds stunningly a whole lot like the legend, singing and speaking. There are moments when it sounds studied or the tics of unique pronunciation, attitudes and note-bending seem exaggerated. That elusive mix of mesmerizing vulnerability and world-weariness can't be bottled. Adding to the challenge could be another frustration for those familiar with the glorious Audra McDonald voice, which can reach operatic heights, has far purer beauty and range than the fascinatingly and unique but small instrument of Holiday's, especially at the end of her career when it was quite weathered. Although McDonald sounds more like a somewhat younger Billie, she's still using very little voice. Of course, the simple and irrefutable answer is that she's doing her job and this is what the job requires. She's an actress here, not a singer using her own style and interpretations as if doing a creative tribute album to a star's songbook. The challenge of channeling is well met.

What else makes this retain its identity as a theatre piece and not just a vocal album? First and foremost, we're getting Lanie Robertson's play itself, first seen Off-Broadway in the 1980s, now directed by Lonny Price, which includes lengthy monologues addressing the audience. With drugs, incoherence and confusion, and emotion affecting the rambling commentary, there is a cocktail of shrugging nonchalance and bitterness, fragility and sets of survival skills. When she struggles and her pianist must get her on track or cajole her, Shelton Becton as accompanist and fellow actor brings welcome added drama with his supportive, but worried, interaction. He also does a brief instrumental "Blues Break." It's all recorded live, and we can't forget that she's singing and talking to an audience in "real time," albeit supposedly an extremely tiny group of listeners in a small joint, with just the additional understated support of a bass player (George Farmer) and drummer (Clayton Craddock), despite being actually recorded before a Broadway house. Their presence as active listeners is heard and felt. It's a play on disc, a voyeuristic experience, a cascade of memories of a long career and the racial prejudices of the times, hardly a typical cast album.

While the Tony-winning McDonald is indeed remarkable in her commitment to portraying the character, bringing Holiday to sad but indomitable life, and I'm impressed, I almost wish I didn't have the Holiday originals and her story so ingrained in my memory. Like the generation who didn't know her work very well, but was introduced to it and pulled in via the biopic Lady Sings the Blues and its soundtrack LP (starring Diana Ross, who sounded far less like Billie, but respectfully got the essence), it might be more intriguing to fresher ears. One thing missing is a saxophone, a crucial emotional and musical element in the mournful and jazzy original recordings. On the other hand, it means there are new arrangements and orchestrations by Tim Weil, adding a kind of vitality, if a less colorful or prominent instrumental presence.

The talk presented as on-stage banter is more exposition as patter. We hear about Holiday's mother, nicknamed the Duchess, her ups and downs, confrontations and conflagrations, mistreatment because of her race (even as a big star), getting high, and the many low points, like getting busted and being raped as a child. The lazy-paced, repetitious telling of tales (such as a few mentions of "God Bless the Child" being inspired by her mother and repeated references to earlier blues legend Bessie Smith) underscore her unfocused, fuzzy state, making the condition seem authentic, not fascinating as storytelling per se, but as evidence of Holiday's haze. Separately tracked, mostly, they can be skipped over as desired on repeated listenings. Very heavily sprinkled with cuss words tossed about with the offhanded blandness of the casual circuitousness, much feels similar in tone. Again, it's more about character than content. It all certainly puts the artfulness and emotional content of some fine songs in different relief when preceded by coarseness or banal chitter chatter.

There are many of the Holiday hallmarks: the lighthearted "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and nose-thumbing stances of "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" and "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)," the indictment about lynching, "Strange Fruit," and erstwhile love songs that can indicate acceptance of uneven or dysfunctional romantic relationships. McDonald is equally adept at capturing the insouciance of chipper pieces or the resigned role of needy romantic. Her struggle through "Easy Living," with much help from the pianist, and the unblinking witnessed sorrow of "Strange Fruit" find the most intense dramatic musical turns. As the play wears on, and Billie is breaking down more than bearing up, the intensity increases with a harrowing tale and song bits self-interrupted and a harrowing final number, "Deep Song." Deep is the sorrow and deep is the well of feelings sampled with this number and elsewhere.

- Rob Lester

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