Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Originally published on

Lady Day album coverLady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is one of those shows that feels like it’s been around forever, making regular appearances at small venues around the country whenever a local singing actress wants to flex her chops a bit with a show that’s pre-sold on the name of its subject, Billie Holiday. In reality, the show debuted in 1986 at the Alliance in Atlanta before coming to New York in a well-received off-Broadway production and has been twice recorded before, in 1997 with Gail Nelson in the title role, and in 1998 with Pamela Isaacs.

I had never given much thought to the play itself, structured as a concert during Holiday’s drug-fueled decline, and when it was announced for Broadway with no less than Audra McDonald in the title role, I was frankly surprised she’d bother with the show. But once performances started, it quickly became a hot ticket, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen her performance and not been thrilled.

Audra McDonald is the kind of once-in-a-generation talent who simultaneously exhibits the range to disappear into a vast array of roles while never failing to put her unique stamp on each. When I heard that she would portray Billie Holiday on Broadway, I couldn’t imagine how Audra’s voice, so unmistakably her, could possibly sound like Lady Day, who had her own unmistakably unique signature sound. Listening to the result on the double-disc cast recording released by PS Classics is a fascinating exercise. The voice is unmistakably Audra’s, but the phrasing, delivery, and tone so perfectly capture Holiday. McDonald’s performance is a master class in how one transcends imitation to deliver a true performance even when working within the confines of portraying an iconic personality.

Unlike the previous recordings of the show, the new recording captures the entire play, such as it is. McDonald sings Holiday’s hits (as well as a few lesser known numbers) interspersed with patter reflecting on Billie’s upbringing, marriage, and troubles with racism and drugs, giving a strong sense that the latter were largely a tragic coping mechanism to deal with the former. Shelton Becton plays Jimmy Powers, doing double-duty as Holiday’s pianist and only remaining friend. (We hear a couple of words from Emerson, the owner and bartender of the titular venue, but the performer is uncredited.) Becton, at the piano, leads a trio featuring George Farmer on bass and Clayton Craddock on drums.

While it is a treat to hear a complete performance of the show (including audience reactions—the album was recorded live at Circle in the Square over the course of two days), the whole can feel less than the sum of its parts. Frankly put, the play itself isn’t good enough to warrant revisiting over and over again in its entirety. And while the climax of Billie’s on-stage breakdown translates to disc, the denouement does not make the transition so gracefully, leaving the listener with the distinct feeling he’s missed the resolution of the play (Patrick Pacheco‘s lengthy essay in the liner notes illuminates why.) But without Billie’s monologue, we’d only be left with a scant 39 minutes of music, hardly a complete album in this era when 70+ minutes is standard.

Don’t think I am discounting the value of those 39 minutes. Any opportunity to listen to Audra McDonald sing should be treasured, and all the more so here where we get to hear an entirely different side of Audra than we’ve ever heard before. But this album’s value rests largely in its status as a memento of a history-making role, likely to be admired as a reference item more than cherished for its entertainment value.

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