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Audra McDonald and Her Band in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill" at Circle in the Square
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Audra McDonald and Her Band in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill" at Circle in the Square

- Backstage with the Playwrights: Jazz and Cabaret Corner

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Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jessica Genick, Will Tryce
et al.

Audra McDonald
Lady Day
At Emerson’s Bar & Grill

(Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill Website)

By Lanie Robertson
Directed by Lonnie Price

Shelton Becton on Dialogue, Conducting, Piano
Clayton Craddock on Drums
George Farmer on Bass
Michael Keller, Music Coordinator

Circle in the Square
(Circle in the Square Website)
50th Street, at 1633 Broadway

Scenic Design: James Noone
Costume Design: Esosa
Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel
Sound Design: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Animal Trainer: William Berloni
Technical Supervisor: Hudson Theatrical Associates
Music Arrangements/Orchestrations: Tim Weil
Production Stage Manager: Timothy R. Semon
Assoc. Director: Matt Cowart
Press: Jeffrey Richards Associates
Advertising and Marketing: Serino Coyne
General Manager: Richards/Climan, Inc.
Assoc. Producers: Greenleaf Productions
Michael Crea, PJ Miller
Company Manager: Daniel Hoyos

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 17, 2014

We will never hear, ever again, such a remarkable live performance of Billie Holiday’s repertoire, with such exquisite musicality, such poignancy, such nuanced malaise. Audra McDonald is alone onstage at Circle in the Square with a three piece band, surrounded by the circular stage, decked out in café tables and chairs. For VIP seating, theatregoers onstage can drink, up close to the show. They might even be drawn into the spoken interludes, as fictitious Philadelphia patrons at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. It’s 1959, and Billie Holiday is swigging what seems to be gin, lots of it, as she’s entertaining her fans. Shelton Becton, the pianist and conductor, is the only speaking musician. He embodies the seasoned musical partner, trusted confidant, and loyal protector. He feeds her cues for the numbers, he fills in words that she forgets in the haze of liquor. Their relationship is symbiotic. She gets gigs, he keeps her standing, singing, and soliloquizing. Clayton Cradock is on drums, and George Farmer is on bass. The only additional character is Roxie the pup, as Holiday’s pet Pepi, in a late entrance.

It should be noted that tonight’s performance was not only sold out, but standing room was filled as well. This could be a first for this enormous theater, that adjoins another timeless and smash show, Wicked. Ms. McDonald’s interpretation of Holiday’s intonation and persona was so refined and authentic, that one could close one’s eyes and be transported to 50’s Philly, with this angst-filled artist. The interludes were asides to the audience, some courageous (a revenge tale of racial intimidation) and some vulnerable (drug arrests, loss of cabaret card). Wistful wishes, of family and love, wind through the fragmented monologue, between songs, with compelling characterization. But, what the audience is most rewarded with is the music, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “Crazy He Calls Me”, “’T Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”, and the wrenching “Strange Fruit”. Throughout the intermission-less show, the band has a retro jazzy sound, even though, from the higher rows, they’re quite separated from the audience, unlike a jazz club. Yet, the sound design, thanks to Steve Canyon Kennedy, works magnificently, showcasing clarity and resonance. Robert Wierzel’s lighting is warm, slightly dim, enveloping.

Lanie Robertson’s play is a fusion of drama, history, cabaret, and ambiance. The stories chosen aren’t overly shocking or graphic, but, rather, vivid and revealing. Esosa’s dresses made for this show, from tonight’s viewing and promotional photos, are all elegantly form-fitting to Ms. McDonald’s figure. They exuded another era, with classiness and those requisite gardenias. James Noone designed the stage scenery, and I would recommend not dividing the audience to create a club in a theater, as that division, with VIP pricing, ironically hinted at Ms. Holiday’s tale of diversity and division. Staging this show in a large club, with the audience buying drinks, or staging this show in a small stage theater would have been more appropriate. In fact, as the show is fairly brief, in the future they could create two club sets each night, to make up for minimizing space. Regardless, Lonny Price directed the show for nuance, gesture, and the finest Billie Holiday interpretations I’ve ever heard. Kudos to Audra McDonald, kudos to the band, and kudos to Billie Holiday. .

Audra MacDonald as Billie Holiday
in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"
Courtesy of Evgenia Eliseeva

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at