You will undoubtedly hear that what Audra McDonald is doing as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is not an impersonation. It is, though. However much more it eventually becomes, it starts with capturing that eccentric, heartbreaking voice — and the capture is uncanny. Right from the first syllables of “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” which opens the show, McDonald nails the pinched tone, side-mouth delivery, and precipitous register leaps of Holiday in her heyday. Consonants are negotiable: “love” is more like “luhw.” Final vowels become dramatic opportunities: “Hear my plea-uh and hurry home to me-uh!” Pitch is obscure or even absent; some notes sound fried in place yet remain part of the melody. McDonald’s Holiday doesn’t so much sing as play her voice, like a saxophone, with perfect confidence in (or indifference to) its expressive powers.
Not that Holiday herself sounded that way by March of 1959, when Lanie Robertson’s play is set. Strung out on heroin, suffering from the cirrhosis and heart disease that would kill her four months later, she had trouble getting through some songs without prompting from her accompanist, and others without a boost from the needle. She was also, as portrayed here, blistering with resentment over a lifetime of hardship, both imposed and self-imposed, that had reduced her from a First Lady of Jazz to the spectacle deejays were now calling “Lady Yesterday.” Only because she had no choice did she play under-attended gigs in out-of-town joints like the fictional Emerson’s, in Philadelphia. (She could no longer get work in New York clubs due to the revocation of her “cabaret card” after a 1947 narcotics conviction.) The paradox was that her interpretive abilities were reaching their greatest acuity just as her expressive ones were in severest decline.
McDonald does not shy away from the pathos of this; when she calls herself, as Holiday, a “black bitch,” there’s no sugarcoating. Still, she approaches the dangerous ripeness of the material with the discipline of an artist. The emotional distress is fully inhabited, but the signs of vocal distress are only sparingly applied. This is not just to protect her famous instrument. (She smokes in the show!) It’s also a wily interpretive choice. Sounding nothing like the lyric soprano who has won five Tony awards in 20 years, she nevertheless uses the strength and plushness of her classically trained voice to idealize Holiday’s. Lady Day’s “training” consisted of listening to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records in the Baltimore brothel where she ran errands as a 12-year-old and, later, touring with big bands like Count Basie’s and Artie Shaw’s. The genius of McDonald’s vocal performance is that she finds a way to sing as if Holiday, in her ruined 44-year-old’s body, still had a young woman’s luscious pipes.
Good thing, too; though the producers are calling it a play with music, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is way more music than play. Robertson’s script, originally produced in New York in 1986 and seen often around the country since then, purports to be an actual Holiday concert, to which end the usual playing area of Circle in the Square is arranged as a nightclub, with table seating for 78 “Circle Club” patrons in the center. For their $20 extra, they get a glass of champagne or sparkling water and a chance to “share the stage with Billie Holiday.” It’s true that McDonald, wearing a beaded white shoulderless gown and fingerless opera gloves to conceal the needle tracks, does occasionally walk or totter among them. But most of the performance, directed by Lonny Price, takes place on a small bandstand at one end. There Holiday, accompanied by the superb Shelton Becton on piano, as well as George Farmer on bass and Clayton Craddock on drums, sings 14 songs or fragments thereof, interspersed with manic, sometimes profane monologues that are meant to represent her patter.
In these monologues, Robertson rehashes familiar lore, much of it drawn from Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. The horrifying truths (her rape at age 10) are liberally mixed with the amusing fictions. (When her parents married, she says, her mother was only 16, her father 18, “an’ I was only 3.”) Having the main character provide her own context under cover of performance is, of course, a lazy shortcut; the sound of the narrative backhoes is never far off. (“Easy Livin’. Easy Livin’,” Holiday mutters after performing that jazz standard. “Like the times I was singin’ with Artie’s band. Artie Shaw. An’ we toured, see.”) Some of Price’s staging touches, such as the images that appear dimly behind a scrim as they are mentioned in the story, also border on tacky. But there’s enough play here (and clearly, enough directorial shaping and support) to give a performer like McDonald what she needs; more might have been too much. As it is, her evocations of the depravities Holiday witnessed, and in particular the indignities she endured while touring the south with Shaw’s otherwise all-white band, are almost unbearably vivid.
If they were not, you could never tolerate such an unpleasant character; maybe that was true of Holiday in real life, too. There was something sacrificial about her. McDonald gets that; she understands that Holiday’s fury is not only natural but in some ways necessary, for the character and the audience. It’s finally what made the songs extraordinary (and why it doesn’t matter that McDonald sings them “better” than Holiday did). Not just or even especially those that touched directly on her misery: “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain,” which she co-wrote, or “Deep Song,” and, of course, “Strange Fruit.” What’s more astonishing is to experience the way anodyne midtempo major-key pop of the period — standards like “Crazy He Calls Me” that could be sung by anyone from Lady Day to Anita O’Day — crack under this pressure. All sorts of unauthorized feeling seeps through them. Holiday gave her voice to such songs in more ways than one; McDonald, in one of the greatest performances I ever hope to see, returns that voice to her, and also to us.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is at Circle in the Square through June 1.