Audra McDonald is spellbinding in ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’

Audra McDonald’s Billie Holiday is one hell of a transformation.

McDonald, who has received five Tony Awards for her performances on Broadway over the past two decades, could easily win yet another for her meticulously sloppy, altogether spellbinding portrayal of the legendary jazz singer Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”

The show, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1986, could be considered a musical, a play with music or just a concert.

Set in a Philadelphia nightclub in 1959, a few months prior to the singer’s death at the age of 44, it depicts a highly inebriated and disoriented Holiday, backed by a three-piece jazz band, singing for a midnight crowd.

Structured as a rambling monologue padded with songs, Holiday performs about 10 songs (including “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit”) while opening up about her difficult life, including being raped, serving time in jail and being banned from New York City nightclubs.

Circle in the Square, Broadway’s in-the-round theater, is an ideal setting for the play. McDonald and the band are positioned on a raised platform, with a fair number of audience members stationed at small tables around them. Often, McDonald will stagger through the crowd in search of another drink or her dog.

It is often said that Holiday cannot be authentically imitated or covered. That’s probably true. But as directed by Lonnie Price, McDonald undergoes a complete transformation vocally and physically, a la Meryl Streep, that is highly theatrical but believable and seemingly effortless.

It’s easy to forget that the play is pretty thin thanks to her transfixing performance.

McDonald forsakes her rich singing abilities to capture Holiday’s distinctively small and scratchy voice. But more than that, she credibly and powerfully inhabits a disoriented woman who is slurring her words and appears to be lost both emotionally and mentally.


Plays at Circle in the Square through June 1.
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