Billie Holiday comes alive in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grille”

Nora Dominick ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Photo Credit:
Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Photo Credit:

The Circle in the Square Theatre has been transformed into Emerson’s Bar & Grille in Philadelphia in 1959. Audra McDonald makes her way through the crowd of to the stage. She stops at numerous tables and engages in conversations. She swiftly approached my table and said “How you doing tonight? You ready to hear some music?” The voice that came out of McDonald wasn’t hers it was Billie Holiday.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grille tells the story of Billie Holiday and her performance at the Emerson Bar & Grille in March of 1959. Just four months after this play is set Holiday would die of heart failure in Harlem on July 17, 1959. The play transports audience members to the bar where they listen to the musical styling of Billie Holiday and her 3-piece band. If you go to this play expecting to hear Audra McDonald sing some Billie Holiday songs you are in for a surprise. As soon as McDonald steps on stage she is Holiday! The way she moves, speaks, and sings embody the late Holiday, which is truly incredible. The show features fifteen Billie Holiday songs including “Strange Fruit”, “God Bless the Child” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”

The songs are broken up with stories about Holiday’s parents, her ex husband and the musical influences of the great Louis Armstrong. Due to the fact that the play is set towards the end of her life, Holiday tends to repeat herself and forget where she is. At one point she completely leaves the stage because she is crying so hard. When she returns the audience can see the drag marks from her heroine needle and she has even brought her dog on stage. Even if you are unfamiliar with Holiday’s life and career, this play paints an incredible picture of how hard her life was and how the music saved her. Out of all the pieces of theatre I have seen, this one left and incredible mark and may be the best play I have had the pleasure of attending.

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Photo Credit:
Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Photo Credit:

For Broadway enthusiasts like myself she is known simply as “The Queen.” McDonald has conquered Broadway one musical at a time. A five-time Tony Award winner for her work in Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and Bess, she has left her mark on the Great White Way. She is currently tied with Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris for having the most Tony Award wins. And with her recent nominations for Best Actress in a Play for her role as Billie Holiday she could become the only person to win an acting award in each category. After seeing the performance, I am fairly certain she is a shoe in to take home the award.

McDonald has also branched away from Broadway in recent years. Her TV credits include a leading role on the Grey’s Anatomy spin off show, Private Practice and most recently she took on the role of Mother Superior in NBC’s Live Broadcast of The Sound of Music. McDonald’s talent knows no bounds and she is showcasing it to the world.

The show was stunning and I could not take my eyes off of McDonald or the incredible 3-piece band behind her. When I did glimpse away my gaze fell to the older married couple sitting across from me were crying when McDonald began singing. Suddenly, the wife turned to her husband and whispered, “It’s her. It’s really Billie.” Watching their faces light up as she sang through her medley of songs and seeing them being transported back was something truly spectacular. This was the true sign of an incredible piece of theatre.

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Photo Credit:
Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Photo Credit:

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grille is a spectacular piece of theatre. Old and new generations are re-introduced to the world of Billie Holiday and her soulful voice. This one-woman show could not have been done with anyone else but McDonald. She completely transforms into Holiday and embodies her every movement and thought. There is no doubt in my mind that McDonald should clear off a portion of herself for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grille is playing at The Circle in the Square Theatre now through August 10, 2014. And make sure to tune into the 68th Annual Tony Awards on Sunday June 8, 2014 on CBS.

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