What a pleasure it was to watch Audra McDonald and a three-piece jazz band last night in Lanie Robertson's play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. This is a wonderful play, beautifully acted, at Circle in the Square, one of the most intimate spaces you can have and still be on Broadway. If you haven't seen it yet, go.
McDonald gets Billie Holiday's voice right, and not only when she's singing, but when she's recounting stories from her life as well. I've seen her twice before on stage, but never like this. The celebrity is lost, completely subsumed by the character, who wanders through the audience members seated at tables in the "club" at the center of Circle in the Square. James Noone's set design echoes the decor of the theatre, helping the audience to feel that they are right there in the club with a jazz legend fallen on hard times.
The core of the play is the relationship between Billie and her pianist, Jimmy, played by veteran musician Shelton Becton. McDonald and Becton work wonderfully together, especially when creating the illusion that they don't work well together at all. As the play goes on, and Billie slips further toward oblivion, Jimmy does more and more to try and cover for her, proving Becton to be a skilled actor as well as a fine musician.
The sequence leading up to the song "Strange Fruit" is the emotional heart of the play. The racism spoken of--directly and indirectly--earlier becomes the focus. It is after this that Billie leaves the stage, completely distraught. After a brief instrumental number, she re-appears, having been "medicated" and now ready to finish the act.
Of course, things get worse, not better, and the final image of the show is one of tragedy, of silence, of death. The play takes the audience on a difficult emotional journey, but it is a journey well worth having.