Thursday, May 15, 2014

God Bless Audra McDonald

Review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill

Has Audra McDonald just won herself a record-breaking sixth Tony?  It's hard to say, but no one can argue with the virtuosic quality of her latest Broadway endeavor.

When you enter the Circle in the Square Theatre, home of the Broadway revival of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, it legitimately feels like you've entered an underground jazz club.  After descending down into the basement lobby, you must enter the smoke-filled theatre proper to the quiet buzz of patrons talking amongst themselves as they find their seats.  A jazz trio plays to the steadily increasing audience, some of whom are seated onstage at tables that further increase the club-like atmosphere.  And then, just as the last few audience members take their seats, the lights dim and she appears.

Not Audra McDonald, the five-time Tony-winner with above-the-title billing on the evening's Playbill; you won't catch even a glimpse of her over the course of Lady Day's intermissionless 90 minutes.  With a jittery walk and a slightly unfocused gaze that belies her intoxicated state, the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday saunters onstage and begins her set, seemingly back from the dead.  The mannerisms, the stream of conscious rambling, and the distinctively mournful voice that expresses a life fully lived, are all hallmarks of Lady Day.  And for the rest of the evening, you are in the palm of her hand; she has control over you, even when she loses control of herself.

To say that McDonald is giving the performance of the season as Billie Holiday seems disingenuous, as she has accomplished what all actors aspire to but few actually achieve: she doesn't seem to be acting at all.  McDonald fully disappears inside Holiday, becoming the legendary singer so completely that she's virtually unrecognizable.  McDonald's heralded voice is completely changed as it adopts Holiday's vocal ticks and mannerisms, but the actress' musicality and song interpretation have arguably never been better.  She is so convincingly, measurably intoxicated throughout the evening that the audience audibly gasps when she falls off the stage, a move that in hindsight was obviously planned but at the moment felt like a legitimate threat to the McDonald's safety.

But make no mistake, her performance goes far beyond mere physical impersonation.  Although the show is essentially a 90-minute monologue, McDonald is so in the moment she never feels rehearsed (the only real giveaways that the evening isn't entirely improvised are the perfectly timed lighting and music cues).  You see McDonald's Holiday have the thoughts before she expresses them, and it genuinely feels as if this is the first time she's put these words in this particular order.  She has fantastic connection to and interplay with the audience - who she repeatedly, almost desperately refers to as "my friends" - which again contributes to the underground club vibe, and demonstrates a searing emotional vulnerability as she shares various and often painful anecdotes about her life.  While the Circle in the Square's small size certainly contributes to the feeling of intimacy, it is McDonald's performance and accessibility that allows you to leave feeling as if you truly know Holiday.

It is unfortunate that Lanie Robertson's script isn't fully worthy of McDonald's numerous gifts, although at the same time anything that provides a framework which allows the kind of performance McDonald is giving cannot be completely dismissed.  The writing nails the free-associative nature of an intoxicated individual so well that it ultimately robs the play of some of its impact, since the script lacks any discernible narrative arc or rising tension.  Perhaps this is by design (the play's central conceit is that no one, including Holiday, realized this would be one of her final public performances before an untimely death), but that doesn't negate the vague sense of dissatisfaction the work leaves you with.  Yet the play does provide a fleshed-out portrait of a deeply troubled artist, while simultaneously putting a personal face on some of the racial issues that plagued the pre-Civil Rights era and are unfortunately still problems today.

Director Lonny Price has seamlessly staged the evening, subtly nudging the production here and there to give it as much dramatic heft as possible.  He keeps the evening interesting and involving while doing remarkably little (James Noone's spot-on scenic design purposely doesn't give Holiday much space to move around), and has obviously helped enable and shape McDonald's performance into the master class it currently is.  As previously mentioned, Robert Wierzel's lighting design is just about perfect, and while costumer ESosa was only called upon to create one look for McDonald it is an absolute stunner.  And the jazz trio of Sheldon Becton (piano), Clayton Craddock (drums), and George Farmer (bass) make absolutely beautiful music together.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, despite being a last-minute addition to the current Broadway season, is a high class affair that has been lovingly rendered from top to bottom.  While Lanie Robertson's script isn't fantastic, it provides the foundation on which McDonald builds one of the most impressive feats of acting I have ever seen.  In her last Broadway appearance, McDonald went operatically big in The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess and won a Tony for it; the fact that she is just as effective, if not moreso, in something as small and intimate as Lady Day proves there is nothing this versatile performer cannot do.  Billie Holiday died long ago, but thanks to McDonald she lives again nightly on Broadway.

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