By Michael Gioia
16 Jul 2014
|Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva|
Audra McDonald made history June 8, when she took home her sixth Tony Award for her captivating portrayal of late jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, the biographical play with music written by Lanie Robertson.
In the piece, which began Broadway performances March 25 at Circle in the Square and opened April 13, McDonald takes in her big voice to take on Holiday's classics. She interprets the tunes through the lens of a beaten-down Billie at a beaten-down bar in 1959 — a few months before her untimely death at the age of 44 on July 17, 1959.
Shelton Becton as pianist Jimmy Powers introduces us to Billie Holiday in "Introduction." Audiences are immediately transported from Broadway's Circle in the Square (you can hear them applauding the entrance music 55 seconds in) to Philadelphia's Emerson's Bar & Grill. The audience settles in, and Audra McDonald as Holiday graces the stage to rapturous applause.
"I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone"
As McDonald sings the first lyric, "All I know…" with a closed, small sound and jazz-inspired vibrato, we immediately forget the voice that won her previous Tony Awards for Carousel, Ragtime and Porgy and Bess, and we believe that the late, great Lady Day is back for one final performance. We love all of the shades McDonald has used to color Holiday — from the vibrato, to the drawl to the diction (listen to 18 seconds in, where "I know without your love" sounds like "I know without your lahhh").
"When a Woman Loves a Man"
Things pick up with the second tune, "When a Woman Loves a Man." McDonald's vocal choices, from the very beginning, are smart considering that playwright Lanie Robertson wrote in the Playbill (check it out at the Playbill Vault) that Holiday "stumbled in obviously 'quite high'…" She starts to speak-sing at around 25 seconds in, vocally falling off the end of phrases. McDonald's Holiday finishes strong at the two-minute mark. We love when she pops up on the word "loves" at 2:04.Continued...