NEW YORK — Only a fool would second-guess the transformative power of Audra McDonald, but when it was announced that this five-time Tony Award-winner was going to portray Billie Holiday in the Broadway production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” I must confess that I had my qualms.
When one recalls Holiday’s sublimely ruined sound at the end of her career, the period in which Lanie Robertson’s concert drama is set, one doesn’t think of McDonald’s soaring, Juilliard-burnished soprano, a gold medal voice still in its athletic prime.
But from the moment McDonald takes the microphone, a metamorphosis more striking than any in Ovid occurs. Gone is the shimmering operatic prowess that powered through “Summertime” in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” the last of McDonald’s Tony-winning performances. In its place are Holiday’s distinctive jazz timing and idiosyncratic phrasing, qualities as singular as fingerprints.
Close your eyes and you’d have to believe that some previously unreleased recording of Holiday’s was being piped into Circle in the Square, which has been transformed into this south Philadelphia dive, with tables set up for audience members seated onstage.
“Lady Day,” which Robertson was inspired to write after hearing about a performance Holiday gave a few months before her death in 1959, had its off-Broadway premiere in 1986 and has been kicking around the national scene (including a few visits to Southern California) ever since. More a music vehicle than a proper drama, the work wisely hasn’t been tarted up for Broadway.
The staging by Lonny Price (who directed McDonald in the 2007 Broadway revival of “110 in the Shade”) trusts the beguiling power of its star. Genius doesn’t need bells and whistles, and McDonald channeling Holiday gives us not just one but two of the most extraordinarily gifted dramatic vocalists America has produced.
The biographical material, harrowing in its litany of abuse, is disguised (not always smoothly) as patter between numbers. Robertson tells us enough but no more — a suitable strategy for a work that, rather than summarizing an entire life, surveys only the crucial influences and experiences that shaped her sensibility.
Grandly attired in white dress and gloves, Holiday stumbles in like a dilapidated queen who has lost her kingdom. She out of jail, but the parole officers are monitoring her and she’s having trouble getting work. She’s not thrilled to be back in Philly (“I used to tell everybody when I die I don't care if I go to Heaven or Hell long's it ain't in Philly”), but she’s grateful to be performing in an intimate club again after having been banned from them in New York.
A small band led by her pianist and conductor, Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton), accompanies her with infinite patience. Jimmy has the arduous task of trying to keep Holiday on track. There are numbers that make her too sad to sing (such as “God Bless the Child," written for her mother, “the Duchess”), but she might not get paid if she skips them.
The more her traumatic past resurfaces, the more she needs her usual escapes. She gropes her way to the bar for some alcoholic refreshment, filling her glass to the brim as a substitute for the stronger medicine she knows she won’t be able to do without.
Eventually, she leaves the stage to feed her heroin addiction. When she returns (cradling her Chihuahua, like the baby she longs for), she has blurred her pain sufficiently to sing “‘Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Her insouciance manner might seem noble were it not so soul-weary. But even at her most exhausted and drug-addled, Holiday is able to transform suffering into something piercingly true.
She reveals at one point, almost casually, that she was raped at 10. Poverty, racism and drugs, all inextricably bound up with one another, leave permanent marks. Unable to be a custodian of herself, never mind her talent, she cannot, no matter how much damage she inflicts on herself, kill her capacity to love.
I don’t want to overinflate the dramatic accomplishment of “Lady Day,” a minor offering that becomes something major only as a showcase for McDonald’s rare artistry, but by the end of the piece Holiday’s singing seems to tell not just her own story but a national one.
An anecdote about being denied the use of a restroom while traveling with Artie Shaw’s band in the South places Holiday’s self-destructive behavior in a wider context. When she sings “Strange Fruit,” the song (about lynching) jangles with stark personal meaning.
Singing provided a sort of blood record for Holiday, and it’s through the music that McDonald captures the tragic story of a jazz great, who through it all was somehow able to show what a little vocal moonlight can do.