Ahead of the Tony nominations on Sunday, a few certainties: the television audience will be relatively small, Hugh Jackman will do a brilliant job hosting, and Audra McDonald should carry home the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Play.
If you’ve sat through the brief, affecting and occasionally harrowing 90-minute show, “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” it’s hard to avoid the conclusion. McDonald is a radiant talent, with a warm voice and beaming smile that light up any venue in which she appears. But for this show, which captures the pathos of Billie Holiday’s later years – addled by drug and alcohol addiction, shunned by the industry, close to death – McDonald has dialed down her natural charisma, put a damper on the soaring voice, and burrowed into the singer’s pain.
A performance like this – it’s essentially a one-woman show, with a four piece band and the pianist standing in as announcer and a narrative device – could easily have devolved into a kind of karaoke show. Holiday’s voice and mannerisms were so distinctive that any actress would have to engage in some contortions to get into the role.
But from the moment she takes the stage in a glittering white dress, McDonald inhabits the role. In between engaging renditions of many of Holiday’s classics – What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Crazy He Calls Me – the story of Holiday’s life of abuse at the hands of others, musical triumphs, destructive relationships with men, drugs, and alcohol spills out.
The audience is primed to be sympathetic. With part of the stage converted into a night club where audience members sit, the connection between performer and observer is extremely tight. McDonald staggers through the crowd – to run off stage and get a fix – and nearly tumbles onto a table. In the middle, when she delivers a rendition of “God Bless the Child,” the audience goes wild. It was a little much to hear the man next to me yell “Go Billie!” But it was hard to blame him.
McDonald is always under control, mimicking Holiday’s smoky vibrato and never cutting her tremendous instrument entirely loose – even as the woman she portrays becomes progressively less in control as the late-night bar gig continues.
The story of Lady Day, ultimately, is about the creation – and ultimately silencing – of a uniquely American voice. Up from vicious poverty, abuse, and segregation, Holiday was a defiant and challenging presence. “T’Aint Nobody’s Business If I do,” as one of her signature songs went. Another one of her signature songs, “Strange Fruit,” about lynching, was a direct challenge to the racial order of the day. And yet, for all the love she inspired among fans, Holiday was ultimately silenced.
As Holiday, McDonald looks these pathologies right in the eye and invites the audience to empathize. In the final scene, the increasingly unwell singer literally begins to lose her voice. As the spotlight focuses on McDonald and ultimately fades, we see hear mouthing lyrics but nothing but silence coming out.