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A CurtainUp Review
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill

What a little moonlight can do to you
You're in love
Your heart's fluttering all day long
You only stutter cause your poor tongue
Just will not utter the words
'I love you'
— Lyric from "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" one of the fifteen songs rendered by Audra McDonald's Lady Day.

Lady Day-Audra
(Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)
One's initial reaction to Audra McDonald as jazz singer Billie Holiday seems like a case of miscasting. At 44, McDonald is a tall, vibrant woman at the very top of her game with five Tonys to prove it. The Holiday in this latest of many biographical tributes is also 44, but she's wasted by alcohol and drugs, and it's just four months before her death. The voice and style that made her a jazz legend in the 1940s had the quality of a slightly scratchy record turning on an old phonograph, whereas McDonald has an opera trained, soaring soprano.

A virtual army of talented singers have performed in Lanie Robertson's bio-drama in regional theaters all over the country since 1986. I first saw it almost twenty years ago when Barrington Stage Company still didn't have a home and the company's resourceful founder, Julianne Boyd staged it in a real bar in Housatonic, Massachusetts. A similar play by Stephen Stahl ran at the Little Shubert Theater just last year. Consequently I had a certain why again? reaction to the news of another Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill — even when the Lady Day was to be a brilliant Broadway star. Actually, that star's quite different looks and voice also added a question about of miscasting.

Unlike Holiday who was an alcohol and heroin addicted wreck at the time of that Philadelphia appearance McDonald is certainly the picture of health and glamour in a bare shouldered white gown by Esosa. But no matter. My reservations melted away like ice cream in the sun. And so will yours.

You see that seeming miscasting is exactly what makes McDonald's portrayal of Holiday a spectacular achievement. Fine actress as well as singer that she is, McDonald literally melts into the more fragile Holiday's persona and voice. The way she channels both the woman and her voice is a knockout you won't want to miss even if the story is by now likely to be overly familiar. Despite entering the stage looking quite robust, at the end of the 90 minutes McDonald really does look like the woman to whom she's paying tribute.

The Circle in the Square is certainly a much more comfortable and ideal space for capturing this encounter with the tragic singer's reflections on her life than the real Emerson Bar. Director Lonny Price and set designer James Noone have smartly utilized the configuration of this venue to enhance the flow of the show. The, bandstand for the excellent three-member combo and a mike for the singer are at one end, a bar is at the opposite end. It's furnished with drinks served by waiters before the shows and for Holiday to pour herself now and then. The whole runway stage section is filled with tables at which members of the audience are seated but with enough room for McDonald's Lady Day to move around. An ornate looking canopy above the bandstand enables lighting designer Robert Werzel to tranform that white gown with hues of red, black and purple. (Consumer note: For all the aura of authenticity experienced by that segment of the audience, views from the more conventional seating on three sides of that runway are just fine).

Robertson's dramatic device for using the format of a typical vocalist's club solo — songs, interspersed with patter consisting of personal anecdotes— is more serviceable than ground breaking. What's ground breaking here is McDonald's uncanny portrayal. Mesmerizing as Audra McDonald is, this ode to a legendary artist is a tribute concert that than a musical or a hefty play with music. Thus even at ninety minutes without an intermission, it feels somewhat over extended.
The songs you'll hear include "When a Woman Loves a Man," "Foolin' Myself," "Don't Explain," "Somebody's On My Mind," "Taint Nobody's Bizness," "Baby Doll" "God Bless the Child," and a riveting rendition of her controversial hit "Strange Fruit." If you don't live in New York and aren't planning a visit during the show's limited run, take heart: A cast album is planned.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Written by: Lanie Robertson
Directed by Lonny Price
Cast: Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday; also Band Leader Shelton Becton as Jimmy Powers and Roxie as Holiday's pet chihuahua Musicians: Conductor/pianist Shelton Becton, bassist George Farmer and drummer Clayton Craddock
Michael Keller: Music coordinator
James Noone: Scenic design: James Noone
Costume Design: Esosa
Lighting design: Robert Wierzel
Sound design: Steven Canyon Kennedy

Orchestrations and musical arrangements: Tim Weil
Animals trainer: William Berloni
Stage manager: Timothy R. Semon Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Circle in the Square Theatre 235 West 50th Street
From 3/25/14; opening 4/14/14; closing 9/21/14

Tickets: $97 to $250(212) 239-6200
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday @8pm Wednesday and Saturday @2pm; Sunday @3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 17th press performance
Song List
"I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone"
"When a Woman Loves a Man"
"What a Little Moonlight Can Do"
"Crazy He Calls Me"
"Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)"
"Baby Doll”
"God Bless the Child"
"Foolin' Myself"
"Somebody's on My Mind"
"Easy Livin'
"Strange Fruit"
"Blues Break”
"T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do"
"Don't Explain"
"What a Little Moonlight Can Do"(Reprise)
"Deep Song"
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