Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 13, 2014
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill by Lanie Robertson. Directed by Lonny Price. Scenic design by James Noone. Costume design by Esosa. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Animal Trainer William Berloni. Musical arrangements/orchestrations by Tim Weil. Cast: Audra McDonald.
As she moves from her entrance point behind the bar to the stage where her three-piece combo is located, she doesn't so much walk as she does floateven if it's floating tinged with more than a little staggering unsteadiness. But once she reaches the microphone and beings singing, she becomes devastatingly corporeal, a glittering wreck, true, but one pulling feelings and words from so deep inside herself that you know she must have arrived from this side of the grave.
That, however, is when you vanish. Her voice, whiskey-saturated and quavering but awash in a desperate agony, is in such fervent command that it all but warps the reality around it into unrecognizable shapes. She's off in her own place, serving unseen others; the Lady may speak to you, sing to you, or even touch you, but it's never clear that she's really convinced you're there. Worse, after a while, you may start wondering yourself.
The question of which of you is rightwhether this is the star to end all stars giving her greatest-ever performance amid her worst-ever circumstances or a broken-down has-been who's long outlived her artistic usefulnesscourses throughout Lonny Price's sterling production of Lanie Robertson's play and Audra McDonald's performance as Holiday, but stops short of becoming a forgettable curiosity. At this concert, set just a few months before Holiday's 1959 death, it's clear she's trying to figure out the answer for herself and, knowingly or not, drag you along for the ride.
One thing, though, is inarguable: McDonald is there. The five-time Tony winner, who last appeared (for some of us, anyway) as the Beggar Woman in the Price-directed Philharmonic concert of Sweeney Todd, so thrusts herself into the role that you'll instantly forget that she's technically miscast. A compelling dramatic soprano of legitimate operatic gifts singing a woman who drowned her bottomless jazz talent in smoke, drink, and heroin is not an easy fit on paper.
But there's not a hint here of the McDonald of Carousel, Ragtime, or Porgy and Bess beyond the sturdy frame and the unshakable focus that are her trademarks. She's summoned up a weakness that she's tangled completely enough to hold on to for strength, which is precisely believable for a Holiday at the end of her rope. And if McDonald's voice, at times, sounds like more of a sketch than a fully realized portrayal, it's the justifiable extension of the rest of Holiday's being: an instrument abused and abandoned, but still under the total control of a master.
So it doesn't matter that McDonald's vocals are broader than Holiday's, thatfrom a production standpointthey're not rooted as deep; the emotions are there and every bit as intense. The cracked playfulness of What a Little Moonlight Can Do, the knowing disapproval of Crazy He Calls Me, the loving despondency of God Bless the Child, and the barely tampered range behind Strange Fruit anchor both artists for us, and guide us, firmly but softly, through the other strains of song that constitute this 90-minute evening.
Robertson's play would work well enough without McDonald, it's worth pointing out; it was a vehicle for Lonette McKee upon its Vineyard Theatre debut in 1986, and has been played by others. What sets it apart from similar effortsincluding the other Holiday biomusical, Lady Day, which played Off-Broadway earlier this seasonis that it's less an attempt to psychoanalyze a destructive personality in its final throes than one that simply presents the implosion and lets it speak for itself. As Holiday breaks down, losing all sense of time, place, and propriety (she empties nearly an entire bottle of vodka at one point, and brings her Chihuahua onstage for a few minutes near the end), we don't need the message underscoredit's already in full view.
Though Price wisely keeps our attention aimed straight at McDonald, other augmentations he oversees are not always needed. An upstage scrim on James Noone's convincing collapsing-club set obscures portraits and phonographs that emerge from Holiday's mind, and are revealed by Robert Wierzel's lights in a hokey, memory-play kind of way that saps the situation of some of its seriousness. And good as McDonald looks in Esosa's gown, her lurching about in a stupor, or communing with accompanist Jimmy Powers (a fine Shelton Becton) could be better choreographed.
Even so, there's practically nothing to complain about here: A vanished legend, a here-and-now star, a moving play, and an astute director are a potent combination. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill may not be a historic piece of writing, or even necessarily among McDonald's own most captivating turns, but it's highly polished Broadway professionalismsomething for which there's always a place. When, in the waning seconds, Holiday begins to fade in image as well as voice, you'll again find yourself wondering whether any of what you just saw can, or should, be taken at face value. If indeed it was a dream, what an affecting one it is to wake from.