Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Audra McDonald Reprises Tony-Winning Role as 'Lady Day'

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Audra McDonald Reprises Tony-Winning Role as 'Lady Day'

Article excerpt

Billie Holiday had a singing style like no other. She also had a life that was tragic and short. Dogged by demons from a painful childhood, she derailed her own success with drink and drugs. She died in July 1959, just 44 years old.

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," a one-woman show by Lainie Robertson, has been a sensation since its 1987 debut in Atlanta. Greats, including Eartha Kitt, have played Holiday in the show, but the most iconic is Audra McDonald, who won her sixth Tony Award for a limited run on Broadway in 2014.

Comparatively few had a chance to see McDonald's performance in the play, but HBO, doing what a premium cable channel does best, changes all that with its own production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

Airing Saturday, the special was filmed at Cafe Brasil in New Orleans, with a live audience, and directed by Lonny Price, director of the much-honored Broadway show.

Defining "Lady Day" is difficult, except simply to call it a tour- de-force by McDonald. It begins as a concert, in a dark nightclub, with Holiday center stage in a white evening gown, singing a couple of her standards.

The scene is Philadelphia. The time, 1959, just four months before Holiday's death. She is giving her last public performance before succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver.

Soon, though, Holiday begins to talk to the audience. They are enthusiastic, although the club, we are told, is seedy, beneath her.

She didn't really want to return to Philadelphia, she complains. "Philly's always been the rat's ass for me."

But she has few choices now that she's been nicknamed, rather than Lady Day, "Lady Yesterday."

"I just want to sing; that's all," she says. "But they won't let me sing in the clubs of New York." (History shows that Holiday's New York cabaret license was revoked after yet another drug arrest.)

"Singing is living for me, but they won't let me."

Drinking steadily onstage, Holiday becomes more and more confessional. Her contract, we're told, requires her to sing her most popular songs, including "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child," whether she wants to or not. …

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