PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill—Audra Takes a Holiday

By Harry Haun
14 Apr 2014

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Audra McDonald
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

McDonald will give you an argument that Lady Day is the best of her musical world simply "because it's not my voice, and staying in somebody else's voice is hard."

How did she find the Holiday sound? "A lot of studying and a lot of listening," she answered. "It's been a year and a half of studying—studying every single tape and video I could and listening to her over and over again and singing along with her.

"I love singing 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do.' It's, like, her happiest moment. She says, when she finishes it, 'I think this is going to be a great evening.' It was a mistake for her to come back to Philly. That's the happiest she gets all evening."

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, with a few tiny little asterisks, is an all-Audra outing. The most conspicuous one is her musical director, Jimmy Powers, played unobtrusively but always compassionately by Shelton Becton. Did he know he was such a good actor? "No, I didn't," he replied without thinking. "I've never done any kind of acting before. I'm always just playing piano. I'm musical director for Roberta Flack, and I've also worked with Patti Austin and Judy Collins. I've worked in the pit for lots of musicals like Ain't Misbehavin' and Memphis and The Color Purple."

Then there's Emerson, the invisible owner of the joint. Periodically, she yells at "Em" tending bar at the back, and he barks back. That's the director Lonny Price, on tape. All told, the show has been a good two years in the coming-together, Price said. "We did a workshop in September for two or three weeks, another in January, then a week in the room before we came here. We were pretty ready when we arrived."

The 14 songs woven into the telling patter are very similar, he said, to the original production. "Tim Weil—the musical supervisor of Rent—did all our arrangements and orchestrations, but they're completely authentic. They're from the recordings. The show runs 85-90 minutes and has maybe 45 minutes of songs. There's still a lot of play because the songs are short. They're not long, involved pieces of music."

The heavy petting in the play is between Lady Day and Pepi, her Chihuahua (played by either Chico or Roxie, both trained by Bill Berloni, who has had himself a pretty busy week—on April 6 with Romeo, the English bulldog in Threepenny Opera, then April 10 with Trixie, the Pomeranian in Bullets Over Broadway, and now this).