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Review Roundup: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Lainie Robertson’s play with music depicting a nightclub performance by the legendary Billie Holiday, opened April 13 at Circle in the Square for a limited engagement. Five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) stars as Holiday in a near-solo performance, crooning 15 of the singer’s signature tunes for the show set at a Philadelphia bar back in 1959. Along the way she relates stories from her checkered past, including her struggles with drug addiction, numerous arrests and encountering racism as she toured the deep south with Artie Shaw’s band. The only other characters are the three musicians who accompany her. Lonny Price, who directed McDonald in 110 in the Shade and the New York Philharmonic concert production of Sweeney Todd, stages the production. The play was previously presented Off-Broadway in 1986 with Lonette McKee.

The critics were unanimous in praising McDonald’s uncanny transformation into the alcoholic, drug-dependent Holiday. Many predicted a record-breaking sixth Tony Award for the star (she is currently tied with Angela Lansbury for the most acting Tonys.) Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post marveled at McDonald’s switching from her usual controlled soprano to Holiday’s scratchy, almost improvisational jazz sound. A few reviewers had reservations about Robertson’s script. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times found the play’s conceit “artificial and a bit hoary.” He pointed out that Holiday performed in a tight spotlight because she didn’t like to see her audience and would not likely share her personal history with them.


Audra McDonald stars in 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill' (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Audra McDonald stars in ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’ (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Charles Isherwood, New York Times
“Ms. McDonald’s career has been in many ways a blessed one (five Tonys at just 43, when Holiday was nearing her end), but by burrowing into the music and channeling Holiday’s distinctive sound, she has forged a connection with the great, doomed artist she is portraying that feels truthful and moves well beyond impersonation into intimate identification. When she sings, there appears before us the ghostly image of an artist who could only find equilibrium in her life when she lost herself in her music.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“[E]xpectations are upended and exceeded the moment Audra McDonald opens her mouth. Her spellbinding tour de force turns a workmanlike show into something captivating, surprising and satisfying.”

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“In summoning a singer who was all about emotion, rhythm and phrasing, McDonald gives a performance as technical as anything she’s ever done — and she knows from technical, having mastered both the operatic trills of Master Class and the melting-pot influences of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The irony is glaring, and if you don’t mind it, you’ll get a kick out of this show.”

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
“As for the singing, it’s a testament to McDonald, who has one of the strongest voices in musical theater, that she molds hers to fit Holiday’s sound, whether it’s in a subdued ‘Crazy He Calls Me’ or a sassy ‘Baby Doll.’ She manages to capture that smoky, peanut-buttery, sometimes staccato delivery. It’s haunting. Close your eyes and Lady Day is back.”

Linda Winer, Newsday
“McDonald doesn’t letHolidaywallow as she tells us, almost offhandedly, about her rape at 10, her prostitution at 14, the macabre death of her great-grandmother, a slave, and the racism that haunted her career. Long before we are shocked, yet again, by the haunting images of her great song about racism, ‘Strange Fruit,’ this amazing actress and this jazz icon are indivisible.”

Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“Her voice sounds lighter and tangier than usual, and flutters and wavers disarmingly; and her somewhat unsteady movements convey a languor that’s droll on the surface but also, given what we know about all thatHoliday’s been through and where she’s headed, full of foreboding. It seems, at first, like a canny impersonation, but McDonald, supported by a superb trio of musicians, quickly transcends that to deliver a performance that’s as nuanced as it is daring.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“It’s a known fact that McDonald is a majestic singer.  (Maybe the best Bess, of Porgy and Bess, our modern stage has seen.)  In more than a dozen songs, she captures the plaintive sound, the eccentric phrasing and all the little vocal catches that identify Billie Holiday’s unique style. But it’s her extraordinary sensitivity as an actor that makes McDonald’s interpretation memorable.”

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
“Watching such a consummate performer lose herself in the character and her music, it’s clear there’s not just diligent research here but also a profound empathy with the tragic struggle of Holiday’s tempestuous life.”

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“McDonald delivers a mesmerizing performance that is not so much an act of mimicry or even impersonation as it is a transformation. A record-breaking sixth Tony Award seems like a foregone conclusion.”

David Finkle, Huffington Post
“[A]nyone who has an interest in seeing five-time Tony-winning McDonald give the performance of her career had better get to Circle in the Square pronto. Indeed, anyone with the slightest curiosity about hypnotic acting should leave for the venue this very minute.”

Matt Windman, AM New York
“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.”

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York
“McDonald’s unflappable aura may seem ill-matched to the Holiday persona, but she brings the pain as required, cussing and railing against the ‘ofays’ in tales of a life blessed with music but marked by substantial abuse. If the dialect sounds a touch forced at first, McDonald eases into it as the show goes on, and delivers Holiday’s broken-horn stylings with rough aplomb.”



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