Lady Be Good
Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva
Audiences have grown so accustomed to Audra McDonald's remarkable level of skill that I sometimes wonder if they're in danger of taking her for granted as a technically accomplished but somewhat remote performing machine, the theater's Meryl Streep. I have never found McDonald remote. Perhaps there are times, over the years, when I felt I could see a little too clearly the wheels turning in her performance. But I've never seen her get in her own way. Whether the song is John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Go Back Home" or Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "Lose That Long Face," I always have the sense of the music being beautifully, naturally illuminated. She shines the light on the song — not on herself.
Like all great artists, McDonald keeps coming up with new ways to surprise her audience. Her characterization of the Gershwins' Bess on Broadway two seasons ago showed her going to a gutsier, more visceral level than I had seen her reach before. It was a fearsome, courageous, under-the-skin performance. Now, as Billie Holiday in the Broadway revival of Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill at Circle in the Square, she delves even deeper. The show has been extended through August 31, and it would be a grave mistake for any dedicated theatergoer to miss it.
Part of the magic of Lady Day, as directed by Lonny Price, is that it never feels like a one-woman show. The setting is a club act, very much like the one a boyfriend of Robertson's saw in 1959, before a sparse audience of twelve in a North Philadelphia dive, just months before Holiday died. Because the audience at Circle in the Square — the set includes a group of nightclub tables and chairs near the stage — is packed night after night, the feeling of pathos and show-biz seediness can't exactly be duplicated. But it's a tribute to McDonald's stunning resources as an actress and a singer that she often makes us feel there only seven people in the room. She sings a generous helping of Billie Holiday standards, including "When a Woman Loves a Man," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Pigfoot," "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit" — as she tells us her life story in increasingly hazy fragments. I've see dozens of plays in which the actor attempts to conjure up the artist he's playing — Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore, Zoe Caldwell as Lillian Hellman, Robert Morse as Truman Capote, Mary Louise Wilson as Diana Vreeland are a few of the ones that come to mind — but I can't remember ever having the eerie feeling that the artist was being channeled in quite the same way I did here. McDonald's Holiday interacts with the audience in a way that doesn't seem to have an ounce of choreography about it. At one point, she does a terrifying slip-and-fall, nearly taking out a table in the process. If I had to point to just one dimension of her performance that I think shows true genius, I'd say it's the difference between her manner when she's slugging down gin and her manner after she goes offstage to shoot up in the bathroom. This is a performance kissed by some kind of witchcraft. Days after you've seen it, I think you'll find that you still feel you're trapped in the room with a woman going down for the last time.
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