Theater Review - Lady Day 2014 (NY)

Audra McDonald is a treasure. She is has the most beautiful voice and is a superb actress. She has won 5 Tony awards for “Carousel,” “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and the Gershwin' s “Porgy and Bess” and has earned numerous Outer Critics Circle awards and the Drama League's Distinguished Performance award. 


Now, she is undertaking a new role as the great Jazz singer Billie Holiday in the play, “Lady Day,” by Lanie Robertson. It played Off Broadway in the 1980s. Here, set in Emerson's Bar & Grill, a little club in Philadelphia in 1959 several months before she died, she performs in a gorgeous white gown with beaded trim (ESOSA) backed by a sublime three piece band. This trio of musicians led by Conductor/Pianist Sheldon Becton is the definition of mellow. I could have listened to them all night. The set (James Noone) houses a night club where audience members can sit at little round tables and drink with service from a bar at one end. At the other is a stage topped with a round pale green curtained canopy. Robert Wierzel has lit the entire space with sparkling balls. 


Audra McDonald affects a blowsy off-center accent for this character, who is supposed to be high and drunk. The accent is interesting at first, as she interacts with her band leader and the audience, but becomes quite shrill as the evening progresses. Billie has spent time in jail for drug addiction and is not allowed to appear in New York, for she has no cabaret license. For one hour and a half, she tells the anguished story of her life while singing 15 songs, some of which she wrote. “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “God Bless the Child,” and the dramatic, “Strange Fruit,” are just some of the excellent pieces.


What stands out is the deprivation she had to endure as a black woman in the 1940s and 50s. One telling tale occurs when she is traveling with Artie Shaw's band.  As their journey progressed through the South, she was never allowed to eat in the main room of a restaurant. Shaw and his band, who were supportive, would have to accompany her to the kitchen, and pay double for dinner. One night, she was not permitted to use the bathroom; the results were catastrophic.


In many ways, this is a tour de force; a highlight is seeing her with her precious dog, Pepi, played by Roxie trained by William Berloni. This is third time in a row on stage that a dog has drawn oohs and ahs from the audience. Billie Holiday was known for wearing Gardenias in her hair, and in one instance she poked the pin into her head, bled and fainted.


I am convinced after seeing many actresses try to play Billie Holiday, it is an impossible job. Audra may have come the closest.  “Lady Day” at Emerson's Bar & Grill at Circle in the Square. 

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