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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Circle in the Square


  Audra McDonald/ Ph: Evgenia Eliseeva

I’ve had the privilege of seeing four of Audra McDonald’s five Tony-winning performances, missing only the first, in the 1994 revival of Carousel. That plus her wins for Master Class (1996), Ragtime (1998), A Raisin in the Sun (2004) and The Gerswhins’ Porgy and Bess (2012), and her nominations for Marie Christine (2000) and 110 in the Shade (2007), mark an astounding progression on Broadway. If next month she wins for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, it will be an unrivalled march to the pinnacle, too – not just a sixth, record-breaking, Tony, besting the five won by Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury, but the first performer to win in all possible acting categories.
It’s impossible to overrate McDonald. (Her rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” during last fall’s live telecast of Sound of Music made the show less of a molehill.) But it may be possible to underrate her, as if anything she does is somehow effortless at this point. Lady Day requires her to walk a fine line between her talent and the immense gifts of the singer she is portraying, an artist beset by demons. Her electrifying Bess, strung out and flailing, may have paved some of the way, but Billie Holliday she takes to the end of the line.
Lanie Robertson based her 1986 bio-play on the recollections of her boyfriend, who saw Lady Day perform at the Philadelphia dive of the title four months before her death, at age 44, from cirrhosis and heart disease. The one-act play is as he described the evening, with Holliday stumbling in high, performing a dozen or so songs at the prompting of the piano player, Jimmy, between sips of booze from a water glass atop the piano, and toying with her pet Chihuahua, Pepi, before staggering out. While the in-the-round staging accommodates many more patrons than the seven (seven!) who saw Holliday perform that evening in 1959, James Noone’s set and Robert Wierzel’s lighting summon a sense of bleakness, of everything about to be left to the ghosts – after a final blaze.
McDonald and her frequent collaborator, director Lonny Price, faced several challenges with this revival. One was to dispel any lingering memories of Diana Ross in the whitewashed film Lady Sings the Blues (1972) or, more recently, Dee Dee Bridgewater in Lady Day, which ran Off Broadway last season. Robertson’s writing, more focused and honest than those, does much of that. The most critical was for McDonald, a regal soprano, to convince as Holliday, lower in tone and in professional standing at the tail end of her life. That she does, smiling through slurred words, trying to concentrate as the tidal pull of memory compels her to tell stories of her blighted background, beloved mother, useless boyfriends, racism, arrests and substance abuse problems. Lurchingly, the shards of what’s left of her art come together as she sings “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Pig Foot (and a Bottle of Beer),” “Strange Fruit,” and others. McDonald, who turns 44 on July 3, sings them in character, without pity or prettiness. This is a play with music, not a musical, and you hear the difference in her wracked voice, see it in her woozy body language.
In short, an incandescent performance by McDonald – and not simply another one. When she leaves the stage, you leave the show contemplating the sad end for Holliday that’s waiting in the wings, and wondering how her interpreter, perhaps our finest theater artist, will galvanize us next.


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