Posted in Audra McDonald, Billie Holliday, drugs and drink, Jimmy Sonny Monroe, Lady Day, Philadelphi, Tony-worthy performance

A Blues Gardenia

Is there anything sadder than watching a great talent squander her gifts?

The image of Billie Holiday near her end staggering around a small bar in Philidelphia, distrubed playwright Laine Robertson so that “writing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill was an attempt to rid myself of the ghost.”

It may have freed Ms. Robertson, but the ghost lives on at Circle in the Square where Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill plays through August 10th.

There is no joy in watching Billie Holliday (Audra McDonald) stumble around the stage.

Audra McDonald is “Lady Day.” Photo
by  Evgenia Eliseeva

By March of 1959 when she performed at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia, Billie Holiday had lost a good deal to her addictions. A felony conviction for possession of heroine cost her her cabaret license so she could no longer perform at clubs in New York. She spent nearly a year in a West Virginia penitentiary.

In 1948, after her release from prison, friends had arranged a Carnegie Hall appearance for her; although Lady Day was uncomfortable in white-run venues and toney spots, she sold out Carnegie Hall and gave it her best, singing 32 standards and her own repertoire, including her 1930’s hit “Strange Fruit.”

The pleasure in this play is watching as Audra McDonald turns herself into the embittered, nearly beaten Lady Day. Audra McDonald is nowhere to be found or seen in this performance. Her acting is a totally self-effacing feat; she disappears into the character. Abused, self-loathing and completely self-destructive, Billie Holiday still did not consider singing the blues. “I’m a jazz singer,” Lady Day says.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is a one woman show with support from Shelton Becton who plays Jimmy Powers, Lady’s piano player and apologist. Clayton Craddock is on drums with George Farmer playing the bass in the three piece band backing Billie Holiday.

For more information about “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” please visit http://ladydayonbroadway.com/

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