Five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald returned to the Broadway stage on Sunday night in the new play with music "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." NY1's Roma Torre filed the following review.
Audra McDonald, one of New York theatre's greatest treasures, has won five Tony awards, and with her impeccable performance as Billie Holiday, she deserves a sixth.
The moment that first note escapes her lips, there's no doubt who this is. On the surface, Lanie Robertson's play, staged entirely as a concert, may seem a modest work, but it's epic in charting the final tragic act in the life of the incomparable jazz artist. It takes place in 1959 at the now-shuttered Emerson's Bar and Grill in Philadelphia, four months before Holiday’s untimely death.
From the start, we can see she's plagued by demons. Already high and sipping on booze, it's difficult to watch as McDonald, backed by a terrific three-piece band, uncannily evokes the tone and frayed quality of Holiday's voice, not only the raspy, halting vibrato, but the brutal, soul-bearing truth beneath the notes. There's no trace of McDonald's own gorgeous soprano. She sings 15 songs, including the haunting classics "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless The Child."
Her vocal talents are matched by an acting performance that is not so much a portrayal as a submersion into the role.
And when Shelton Becton, as Holiday's gentle accompanist and caretaker Jimmy Powers, stops to help her after an emotional breakdown, there's great catharsis in the room.
Take note, this isn't entirely a downer. Under Lonny Price's solid direction, Holiday's wry humor is captured quite neatly as well. And whether it's laughs, tears or music, there is not a false note to be found in this priceless gem of a show.
This is 90 of the best minutes you'll ever witness in a solo performance. Audra is once again audaciously awesome.