Performance diary: LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL

May 5, 2014

audra_mcdonald_lady_day
5.3.14 – From the very first note she sings in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Audra McDonald dives deep into the persona of Billie Holiday and never comes out. It’s not a superficial impersonation or even a musicianly tribute to an indelible style. It’s a carefully studied and crafted performance, ever so slightly stylizing the vowels she sings in a way I’ve never heard anyone else do. It doesn’t even necessarily sound exactly like Holiday but I liked the curious and specific attention McDonald paid to each moment of each song. She has had excellent help from her director, Lonny Price, who took a pretty drab script by Lanie Robertson and made an event out of it, surrounding the singer’s bandshell with cabaret tables to make the usually cumbersome Circle in the Square Theater deliciously intimate. McDonald has a surfeit of conventional beauty, something Holiday lacked, but she’s willing to get rough and look unpretty. The moments when she starts building a tirade about racism in the music business or financial exploitation and her accompanist Jimmy Powers (played by Shelton Becton) gently guides her back into a song reminded me uncannily of Nina Simone in concert (see her riveting, disturbing Live at Montreux video). You know you’re watching a brilliant performer in serious decline, yet Price finds a way to end the show with a spot of unexpected theatrical grace.

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