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NEW YORK – In “Deep Song,” the closing number performed by the intoxicating Audra McDonald as the intoxicated Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, the character sings with haunted self-knowledge, “I only know misery has to be part of me.” Along with salty humor, joy, bitterness and plummeting despair, that sense of suffering as a constant companion permeates and elevates Lanie Robertson‘s slender yet affecting bio-play with music, crafted as a woozy late-night concert in the South Philly locale of the title, a few months before the singer’s death.
First produced in 1986 with Lonette McKee in the title role, this is virtually a solo show despite the solicitous interactions of Holiday’s pianist Jimmy (Shelton Becton), who leads the superb jazz trio. Robertson’s tribute doesn’t hurdle the inherent limitations or cliches of its portrait of the artist as a maudlin trainwreck. But the performer sure does. McDonald inhabits the role with such respect for the damaged character she’s playing — not to mention such uncanny vocal transformation — that what could be a fragile construct becomes an immersive drama graced with complex character shadings.
Unlike the more heavy-handed Judy Garland play End of the Rainbow, which had a Broadway run in 2012, this is no ghoulish sideshow. And unlike this season’s A Night With Janis Joplin, it doesn’t sanitize the subject’s demons.
At the relatively young age of 43, McDonald already has five Tony Awards on her shelf, putting her in a league with some of the all-time greats of the American stage. Her powerful rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” as the Mother Abbess on NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! in December let a much wider audience in on the secret of her extraordinary gifts.
Physically, McDonald of course looks far healthier than Holiday did near the end, and vocally, this Juilliard-trained soprano could hardly have less in common with the jazz legend. But her astonishing interpretation of signature songs like “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” captures the subject’s essence in ways that transcend mimicry. Plunging beneath her natural register, McDonald nails the scratchy, conversational quality of Holiday’s voice in her later years, the distinctive idiosyncrasies of her phrasing and intonation, but also her unique way of penetrating the heart of a lyric. McDonald can also be playful in her homage, for instance when she luxuriates in the howls and growls and sexy swoons of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”
Watching such a consummate performer lose herself in the character and her music, it’s clear there’s not just diligent research here but also a profound empathy with the tragic struggle of Holiday’s tempestuous life.
Director Lonny Price, set designer James Noone and lighting chief Robert Wierzel have conjured the smoky ambience and intimacy of a late-’50s nightspot, its evocativeness enhanced by having the musicians (Becton on piano, George Farmer on bass, Clayton Craddock on drums) playing silky jazz before the show starts. Much of the actual stage is given over to cabaret tables where part of the audience sits over drinks, with a cocktail bar at the back, to which Billie weaves her way mid-set and pours herself an epic gin on the rocks.
Wearing an elegant white evening gown by costumer ESosa, Billie performs all or part of just over a dozen songs. She starts out reasonably in control, establishing an easy, bantering rapport with her audience. But she unravels slowly throughout the evening as associations from various lyrics, painful recollections that surface in her rambling patter, her craving for a little narcotic pick-me-up and her heavy alcohol consumption take their emotional and physical toll.
Through fragments of information dropped into her dialogue — some lucid, some addled verging on incoherence — an outline of Holiday’s life of highs and punishing lows is revealed. Her parents married when her mother was just 16 and she was already 3 years old. As a child she worked scrubbing the steps of a Baltimore whorehouse. Even her most traumatizing experiences are related with an air more of weary acceptance than self-pity. She recounts waking up next to the dead body of her great grandmother, a former slave, at age 8 or 9. “That an’ bein’ raped when I was 10 was almost the worst things that ever happened to me,” she reflects almost casually. “They wasn’t, but they come damn close.”
She returns often to Sonny Monroe, her first and “worst” love, but also the man who got her hooked on heroin, costing her valued friendships. One of those was with saxophonist Lester Young, whom she called “Prez” after he dubbed her “Lady Day” and her mother “The Duchess.” Yet when Billie speaks of Monroe it’s with tenderness: “He was just like a little boy, my little manchild, all scared an’ helpless.”
While Holiday’s formative musical influences have been widely documented, it’s illuminating to hear her speak of first hearing the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and what she took from both: “What I do is the blues feeling with the jazz beat.” Recollections of her time on the road with Artie Shaw‘s band yield indictments of a segregated country in which a celebrated artist was deemed unfit to enter an establishment until it was time to step onto the stage. That period also is related with invigorating humor, notably in a hilarious extended anecdote about being refused access to the restroom of an Alabama restaurant.
Acknowledging how Shaw and his all-white band insisted on eating in sweltering kitchens in places where Billie was not allowed in the dining room, she becomes choked with feeling: “They was pals to this black bitch an’ I’ll never forget it.”
Fueled by prickliness over past experiences in Philadelphia, her history of imprisonment and persecution by authorities emerges as a recurrent motif. “In this country bein’ arrested is the colored folks tradition,” Billie says with a wry laugh. She also points up the paradox of playing Carnegie Hall, but not being permitted to perform in New York bars because her criminal record prevented her from obtaining a state cabaret license.
There’s an inevitable artificiality about so much biographical data being stuffed into a “concert” performance, and Price adds to that informational aspect by beaming superfluous photographs and other visual aids onto the rear wall. But compared to the clunky Garland or Joplin shows mentioned earlier, Robertson’s play incorporates his subject’s background with sufficient economy to maintain the illusion of a spontaneous performance.
The crucial assist in that feat, naturally, comes from McDonald, whose commitment to the characterization never falters. There’s a heart-stopping sense of the unpredictable in watching Billie repeatedly crumble and then grapple for composure before our eyes, often getting testy with anxious Jimmy. The actress infuses all this with a dignity that keeps it from lurching into the grotesque.
At one point after a brief retreat she returns to the stage semi-fortified by stimulants. With her beloved scene-stealing Chihuahua, Pepi, in her arms, she momentarily regains some juice as she slurs her way into “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” its disturbing lyrics underscoring Holiday’s weakness for abusive men. But the image that lingers even after McDonald’s well-earned standing ovation is that of a shattered Billie, struggling to pin her trademark gardenia into her hair — as if that flower could somehow fasten the pieces of this broken woman back together.
Venue: Circle in the Square, New York (runs through Sept. 21)
Cast: Audra McDonald, Shelton Becton
Director: Lonny Price
Playwright: Lanie Robertson
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Robert Wierzel
Sound designer: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Musical arrangements & orchestrations: Tim Weil
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jessica Genick, Will Trice, Ronald Frankel, Rebecca Gold, Roger Berlind, Ken Greiner, Gabrielle Palitz, Irene Gandy, GFour Productions
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