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Audra McDonald channels Billie Holiday on Broadway

Linda Armstrong | 6/5/2014, 12:38 p.m.
Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald channels the spirit of Billie Holiday in a touching, moving portrayal of the late jazz singer in her Broadway show, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on West 50th Street. McDonald transforms herself into Lady Day and does so on many levels, from her gruff, raspy, speaking voice, to her facial expressions and gestures, to singing several Holiday songs just like the late jazz icon.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is an intimate production that makes the audience feel like they’re having a sit-down with Lady Day. She’s been drinking and continues to do so; she feels like singing and does so; and she feels like sharing information about her life, especially the low points.

The audience meets Holiday when she is no longer the big star, but rather the forgotten performer. She shares her regrets over the choices she made in life and shares the tragedy of going to jail. We learn of her love for a man who not only introduced her to drugs, but also let her take the rap when his drugs were found in her possession.

We hear of the vivid racism that Holiday endured and of the white bands that stuck by her. When she couldn’t enter through the front door of a hotel and had to eat in the kitchen instead of the main dining room in the 1950s, the white band members would do the same. McDonald’s Holiday is a very foul-mouthed woman who tells things like they were on so many fronts. She even talks about getting raped at the age of 10. She shares details about “The Duchess,” her mother. She shares how she got into singing—which was from listening to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records.

McDonald portrays Holiday so completely that the audience is mesmerized, captivated and sometimes shocked by the actions that they behold. McDonald is intoxicating as the troubled, self-medicating, broken singer. When watching this production, you could feel the deep respect, love and admiration that McDonald has for Holiday. Her portrayal has a tenderness, respect and caring to it. It’s obvious that she wants to give the late jazz icon the utmost respect, and the audience leaves feeling the same way. The audience laughs at times and listens all the time.

The way that McDonald stays in character, consistently slurring her words, at times stumbling and suddenly crying as Holiday goes on an emotional roller coaster and then fighting to keep things together, is nothing less than astonishing to see.

This is a production you need to see. McDonald is a five-time Tony Award winner, but you’ve never seen her like this. This is the most challenging role I’ve seen her do, and she does it with ease.

For more information, visit ladydayonbroadway.com.