As Billie Holiday, nearing the end of her young life, returning one last time to sing at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philly - Audra McDonald is quite sensational. She has left Audra at the stage door of Circle in the Square Theatre and has become Lady Day.
Living and breathing and stumbling as she makes her star entrance in this star vehicle written lovingly and truthfully by Lanie Robertson about a star spiraling down, out of control, dissolving right before our eyes.
It’s not a pretty picture, but Audra McDonald is a powerful presence. Eerily replicating the voice and tone and phrasing of the illustrious and most original Lady Day. Singing fifteen famous Holiday songs. Moving us with her heartbreaking life – man problems, drug problems, police problems, prison and racism - as she opens up to her “pals and friends” in the intimate club as she refills her never empty glass of booze – spilling her guts out sometimes humorously and sometimes contemptuously between numbers.
Lady Day is backed up by a fantastic trio consisting of “her main man” Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton) on piano – and boy can he caress those ivories – Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass with wonderful arrangements and orchestrations by Tim Weil.
Steve Canyon Kennedy has done a masterful job with his duo sound design - distinguishing between that of her singing into the standing microphone and when she is off mic – speaking. It is so subtle but it makes a big difference. Every important lyric and part of her story is heard clearly.
Jimmy says very little but keeps his fading star on track. Calmly cuing her intros every so often for the songs she is contracted to sing. Songs that sometimes she doesn’t want to sing –‘Cause she sings the way she feels - which can sometimes be a problem. But when Audra sings as Billie it is glorious and ultimately breathtakingly sad.
Director Lonny Price has wisely converted the Circle in the Square Theatre - adding twenty small round tables where drinks are served (Circle Club Seating) facing the stage area and where Billie gets to mingle with her “pals” requesting a guy to light her cigarette, and where she makes her exit about three quarters into the show to return with her pet Chihuahua Pepi (Roxie) and her arm bared and bloodied by her drug injections that had been discreetly covered by her long white opera gloves - attempting to regain her thoughts and composure before her final devastating number.
Regrets she had a few. Never having a child nor her own club. She loved her mom “Duchess” – Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Artie Shaw who befriended her and fought for her rights.
It’s a phenomenal performance that could bring Ms. McDonald another Tony to be added to her already crowded shelf of awards. There are only a handful of performances that if you miss, you will regret forever. Audra McDonald as Lady Day is one of them.
LIMITED ENGAGEMENT through August 10th. www.LadyDayonBroadway.com
Photos: Evgenia Eliseeva
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