It was a hot summer day in July when my dad and I stepped into the Circle in the Square Theater in New York City to see “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” We were ushered into our seats, an area with tables and chairs set up like a jazz club in the center of the theater’s in-the-round seating. The band was playing some music, setting the mood for the evening to come. Then, the lights came down, Audra McDonald (“Private Practice”) walked from the back of the “club” to the stage and we were taken for a journey neither of us will ever forget.
That was my perspective before watching HBO’s taping of a special New Orleans performance. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is one of my favorite productions I’ve seen on Broadway. I hoped I could relive the experience of being in the room where it happened through the taping. And relive it I did. McDonald brought the same power to her portrayal of Billie Holiday as she did during that day nearly two years ago, bringing back the same emotions from me as she is nothing short of amazing in it.
“Lady Day,” billed on Broadway as a play with music, portrays a fictionalized account of one of Holiday’s last concerts in Philadelphia in March 1959, four months before her death in July at age 44. During the “concert,” she sings several of her seminal jazz hits, including “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” Interspersed between the songs are scenes of dialogue, where Holiday tells stories from her life and of her troubles, as she loses control of herself throughout the evening due to drinking and drugs.
While the vocal transformation McDonald does to play Holiday could easily become a bad impersonation, McDonald is able to bring layers to the character through pure emotion and performance ability. The most impressive element of her performance is how she modifies her voice to match Holiday’s. McDonald traditionally has a big, bold and gorgeous soprano, but to play Holiday, she restrains it. Instead, her voice is soft and sweet, gradually growing weaker as Holiday deteriorates throughout the night. She embodies Holiday’s voice, bringing a sense of beauty to every note she sings.
What stops the performance from being a pure impersonation is the amount of pathos she brings to the character through the show’s dialogue. She delivers a remarkable amount of emotional layers to her performance as Holiday talks about how she was raped at age ten, how she was a prostitute as a teenager, her tough relationship with her mother and the racism she faced as she toured around the country. When Holiday got to the point where she needed to take drugs to continue performing, McDonald made me feel Holiday’s pain. This show is just Holiday, her band and a microphone, and McDonald carries it all the way through.
“Do you know what I want? I want a beautiful home. And some kids. And I wanna cook. And I want something else too. I want a club. My own club. It’s very small, it’s very cozy. It’s just someplace where I can sing to all my friends. What else is there?”
That’s the last line of dialogue in the show, and it breaks my heart every time I hear it. Holiday never had a chance at that life and deserved so much better than what she had, and that’s the tragedy that drives “Lady Day.” McDonald won her record-setting sixth Tony Award for her performance on Broadway, and HBO giving people this opportunity to see her brilliance makes me so happy. Or at least as happy as being able to relive one of my favorite theatrical experiences.