Friday, July 11, 2014

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill: Broadway's "Golden Girl" Resurrects the Spirit of a Tortured Soul

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere
Photos by Evgenia Eliseeva-(c)

NEW YORK--Before Paris Hilton made the dog purse a fashion must on reality TV,  Hollywood bad girl Lindsay Lohan was sent to Beverly Hills prison for bad behavior and drug abuse and Rihanna suffered a beat-down by Chris Brown, there was Billie Holiday, the reigning musical diva of the swing and jazz era. Her tortured spirit is brilliantly resurrected by Audra McDonald, Broadway's most celebrated actress, who made history as a six-time Tony Award winner for winning Best Performance by a Leading Actress for her portrayal of the singer in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill at the Circle In The Square Theatre. It is a landmark performance.

Many tourists will visit New York City in these waning weeks of summer. Along with tours of the Statue of Liberty and views from the Empire State Building, they should add a stop at the Circle In The Square Theatre to see a Broadway legend in one of the Great White Way's most historic shows.

But, if you are expecting to see Audra McDonald in all her sylvan voiced glory, you will be sorely disappointed. There is no award-winning Broadway star on display here, only the exhumation of a tormented voice that still speaks today. 

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a rare and raw look at a divinely gifted talent, who is equally cursed by her beauty, fame and vocal ability. One of Billie Holiday's most famous songs was one recorded by her in 1939 and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978 , entitled Strange Fruit. A line in the song refers to the "Scent of Magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh." The song is a paen to the horrifying lynchings of black men in the South and the sight of the bodies swaying in the trees in an otherwise idyllic setting. The same jarring contrast is symbolic of Holiday's own life with its flashes of beauty, fame and glory and her intermittent descents into drug abuse, sexual and marital abuse, imprisonment and public humiliation. 

One of the most enduring images of Billie Holiday shows her wearing her trademark Gardenia flower in her hair. The portrait is a metaphor for her fragile state and fleeting life.  

Written by Lanie Robertson and Directed by Lonny Price, the show opens with the audience seated in a near theatre-in-the-round, with lower level audience members seated at small, round tables, having drinks, as if at an actual cabaret. The trio, led by pianist Shelton Becton, who plays  Lady Day's long-suffering accompanist Jimmy Powers, is playing warmup numbers on the tiny raised stage, in anticipation of the shaky diva's now long-delayed arrival onstage. 

McDonald's ability to channel both the persona and the voice of Billie Holiday is nothing short of extraordinary. Everything we know about Billie is there, the halting, sometimes stumbling gait, the blurred, drug and alcohol infused slurring of words and occasional vocal missteps, and the intermittent flashes of temper and emotional fatigue. The performance is, at times, uncomfortable to watch because of her gradual and obvious unraveling onstage, but it is impossible to take your  eyes off of her, her performance is that riveting.

In the program notes, the playwright, Lanie Robertson, explains why she wrote the play: "In 1959, a boyfriend of mine saw the great Billie Holiday in a little dive in North Philadelphia (Bille's birthplace) about three months before she died. He said she stumbled in obviously "quite high" carrying her little Chihuahua, Pepi, whom she introduced to the audience. A water glass was kept filled with booze atop the piano for her. She and the piano player performed ten or 12 of her songs for an audience of seven patrons. Then, he said, she staggered out. That image of the world's greatest jazz singer being so undervalued at the end of her life and career was an image that has always haunted me. Writing Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill was an attempt to rid myself of that ghost."

Holiday was said to be distant and aloof with audiences, but here she is portrayed as sharing anecdotes of her life between songs, revealing in vivid detail the triumphs and travails of her life as depicted in her autobiography, "Lady Sings The Blues," written with friend and ghostwriter William Duffy and published in 1956. McDonald/Holiday delivers them in her gravely, withering voice, alternately with a tinge of delight, and then with a touch of irony and hilarity, often bordering on gallows humor. One of the great stories is one she relates about her travels as the vocalist with Artie Shaw's all-white band through the Deep South. She confronts the white female restaurant manager of a hotel and restaurant where they were performing, over the establishment's refusal to let her use the whites only bathroom. Billie gets the last word in by squatting down and "letting it go" right on the floor in front of her! That prompted the band to joke onstage, "Don't mess with Billie. She's got a secret weapon!"

I won't give you any more details of the show.  You really should make the effort to go to New York to see it for yourself. It's that good.  It is truly a ground-breaking performance that shows the power of theatre to transfix and transform. 

If Billie Holiday were alive today, she would have certainly been the subject of a reality tv seres. Ironically, she was actually the subject of one of the first reality television shows, ABC's reality series, "The Comeback Story,"in which she discussed her attempts at overcoming her many misfortunes. Alas, her ambitions were never to be realized. Holiday died broke and under arrest for drug possession in a room in a New York hospital in 1959 at just 44 years old.

Fortunately, she is immortalized in her many recordings, film and tv appearances and now, in this superb production.  Long after the sound of the applause at the Circle Theatre has died, the spectre of Billie Holiday will loom large behind the cult of celebrity, the tabloids and reality TV that dominates our daily lives.