Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, a play with music that opened at Club Circle in the Square April 13, represents the best of both worlds for Audra McDonald, who has five Tonys pretty evenly divided between straight acting (Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun) and singing (Carousel, Ragtime and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess).
Here, in this Broadway revival of Lanie Robertson's 1986 Off-Broadway hit, the actress reports to work first, weaving slowly with a determined steadiness through the cabaret tables that now clutter the Circle's stage to the bandstand, where a jazz trio waits to accompany her through a long slog of songs and cerebral free-fall.
From the first word, which is actually three words — "All I know," slurred and blurred into a 90-proof single unit — you realize the actress is on the right soundtrack, her beautifully enunciated lyric soprano left at the coat-check in favor of the frail, lazy, damaged sound of Billie Holiday in the dregs of a career ruined by booze and drugs.
Playwright Robertson picked "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" for her opening number on purpose because of those three little, lost words. "Nightclub singing really was the only thing Billie knew," he said. "Gradually, she awakes to the fact that she is on stage in front of an audience before a microphone, and she does the only thing she knows how to do: she performs"—between big waves of bad memories.
"That's the only thing she could ever count on," McDonald seconded, "all she knew." If Holiday sounded and looked a long way past The Primetime Players, there were extenuating circumstances, McDonald argued. "Yeah, she's a little bit drunk at the beginning, and she'll obviously get a lot worse—but that's how Billie spoke. If you listen to interviews with her when she's supposedly straight with Mike Wallace, you can't really understand her. She slurred her words. And, at the end of her life, she had swollen feet and beaten legs—consequently, she was slow getting to the stage because it was hard for her to walk—so it's not all the alcohol. That comes as the night goes on. When she lumbers on at the start, there are physical reasons."
Holed up in a seedy motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert, two former lovers unpack the deep secrets and dark desires of their tangled relationship, passionately tearing each other apart. Led by director Daniel Aukin (Back Back Back at MTC, 4,000 Miles), Tony winner Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur at MTC, Born Yesterday) and Sam Rockwell (A Behanding in Spokane, The Way Way Back) bring an explosive intensity to Sam Shepard’s (Buried Child, True West) landmark myth of the new Wild West.