As Audra McDonald takes to the stage of the Circle in the Square Theatre, head tilted and bottom jaw thrust forward, a suspicion begins to arise that’s confirmed as soon as she opens out her mouth to begin her first number, “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone.” That’s not Audra — is it? — at least not any Audra we’re used to seeing. And this is most certainly not the Circle in the Square we’re used to. Instead, thrillingly, it’s Billie “Lady Day” Holiday, and this is Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a small bar in south Philadelphia.
Audra McDonald may not resemble Billie Holiday all that much despite Esosa’s beautiful costumes, but her physical gestures and especially her hauntingly spot-on vocal channeling of a jazz great help lift her performance up into the stratosphere of all-time great performances in the category of notables portraying notables onstage.
If the play that contains McDonald’s performance, Lanie Robertson’s aptly-named Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, is somewhat more slight than her contributions, it’s rich with character detail nevertheless. The evening takes the form of a midnight concert Holiday gave at Emerson’s, where the bartender is an old friend of Holiday’s, just four months before her death in 1959.
Emerson’s, which is presented here as an area of table seating on the floor of the Circle in the Square (usually taken up by the stage), has been beautifully designed by James Noone, with a beautiful chandelier over the playing space and a modest-sized stage for McDonald to inhabit alongside her accompanist, Jimmy Powers (played by Shelton Becton), drummer Clayton Craddock, and bassist George Farmer.
Because of a drug-related conviction, Holiday’s New York City Cabaret Card (which allowed the city to control the morality of the performers in its clubs) was revoked, severely limiting her career options at the time. As a result, Holiday is thankful for the work this gig provides her though generally resentful of the expectations projected onto her performances, where omitting “Strange Fruit” or “God Bless the Child” could often cost her her paycheck.
In Lady Day, McDonald performs sixteen of Holiday’s classics (or parts thereof), interspersed with Robertson’s scripted patter. In these spoken interludes, the highs and (mostly) lows of Holiday’s life come to the forefront as McDonald relates her early years, family life, and fraught relationships. If McDonald’s singing voice as Holiday is impressive, her seamless transition into the play’s dramatic moments is equally deft.
Occasionally, the biographical details of Robertson’s text stretch the limits of plausibility in the context of the concert premise of the play (would a performer actually casually refer to her rape in a cabaret setting?), but McDonald’s performance has a loose, off-the-cuff quality that allows us to suspend disbelief. Toward the evening’s end, Holiday, who’s been drinking profusely throughout, needs to step backstage for a moment to compose herself.
Reemerging with her dog Pepi (played by delightful rescue dog Roxie), McDonald performs the feat of retaining focus while a live animal’s onstage. Pepi doesn’t stay on too long; with Jimmy’s help, Holiday finishes the show, which eventually ties together the elements of her past in an effective tableau of photos and props that’s veiled behind an upstage scrim.
For those like me who knew only the basics about Billie Holiday going in, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill sheds enough light on its subject to make for a satisfying evening of theatre. If you’ve ever heard even a song or two of Holiday’s though, you’ll recognize the genius of McDonald’s must-see performance here, which manages to feel meticulously studied and joyously effortless in the same breath — as, in the process, she’s taking ours away.