THE BLOG
04/13/2014 10:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2014

First Nighter: Audra McDonald Dazzles as Billie Holiday

The most exquisite singing being done on a New York City stage right now is Audra McDonald delivering "God Bless the Child" at Circle in the Square. It's stunning, it's heartbreaking. If there's anything available even better at the moment, it's McDonald again, this time singing "Strange Fruit." The anguish and fury in it is heart stopping.

She's offering the superb vocalizing as Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, and since this is a limited engagement, anyone who has an interest in seeing five-time Tony-winning McDonald give the performance of her career had better get to Circle in the Square pronto. Indeed, anyone with the slightest curiosity about hypnotic acting should leave for the venue this very minute.

Robertson's work -- it's not a musical or a play with music so much as an up-close-and-personal character study -- takes place in the small Philadelphia jazz club where Holiday returned late in her career for a poorly attended gig. Mad at the town where she'd endured one of her several arrests, the alcohol-and-drug-addicted Holiday is only lamely trying to put aside her resentment and finish a set including signature songs she knows her fans will insist on hearing.

Arriving on the small stage only slightly inebriated, she offers songs she's in the mood to reprise while interrupting their flow with scattered, far from chronological information about her life. She tosses obscenities around freely when recalling her Baltimore birth as Eleanora Fagan, the move to Harlem with her mother when she was a teenager, the early singing in local dives, her devotion to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, her first recordings thanks to John Hammond and, in no short supply, the destructive men in her life.

Continually drinking until she's stumbling down steps when wandering through the cabaret tables set designer James Noone has placed between the bandstand and a curved bar, she fondly remembers saxophonist Lester Young and band leader Artie Shaw and much less fondly recalls a Southern restaurant hostess's denying her the use of a toilet. She also dwells on the loss of her cabaret card, a situation that, due to her incarceration for drug possession, keeps her from working in New York City niteries.

Holiday tries the patience of her piano player (Shelton Becton, fronting a trio featuring bassist George Farmer and drummer Clayton Craddock), as she increasingly becomes so depressed by the booze and the recollections prompted that she fights against the songs she's meant to include and threatens to stop singing altogether. Several sheets to the wind, she even brings out the Chihuahua she treasures.

"Channeling" is the cliché usually invoked for depictions of this sort, and it's a cliché that won't go undeployed here. A broad channel has obviously opened for McDonald, whose acting is exemplary. Wearing Esosa's approximation of one of the many strapless gowns Holiday owned and with her hair pulled into the ponytail Holiday affected in the last couple of her four and a half decades, McDonald seamlessly turns herself into the vastly talented, profoundly dissatisfied singer.

And then there's the singing. McDonald has won Tonys in large part on the strength of it before -- four of them, as a matter of fact in singing roles, the most recent as Bess in the Porgy and Bess revival. But those awards have been snagged on the power, piquancy and poignancy of her classically trained soprano.

Forget that. (If you can.) Here, she replicates the Billie Holiday sound to a point where her success approaches the phenomenal and then lands there. She achieves the airiness that allows notes to float unexpectedly and suddenly high. She achieves the guttural quality that takes Holiday over when the passion of a lyric possessed her. The latter effect is what occurs on "God Bless the Child," which she wrote as a reaction to her mother's once denying her money, and on "Strange Fruit," which she began singing in response to racist behavior she'd experienced touring the South.

Any longtime Holiday devotee -- I'm one and had a chance to hear her live at Boston's Storyville one night in 1958 and inexplicably passed it up -- has to remind himself that there may be a couple of generations unaware of the singer and therefore not already thrilled at the prospect of hearing McDonald take on with such astonishing accuracy staples like "Don't Explain" (which Holiday wrote about her errant first husband), "What a Little Moonlight Will Do," "Easy Livin'," "T'Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," "Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer"), "Crazy He Calls Me" and seven others. Newcomers to her will cherish the Holiday introduction.

In a program note, dramatist Robertson explains that he heard about Holiday's Emerson's Bar & Grill stay from a boyfriend, who said that only six patrons were in attendance on the night he was there. Robertson says he wrote his play to expunge "an image that has always haunted me."

It's certainly a haunting image, and one that would serve the set-up well were Holiday shown grappling with the disappointing turn-out. It's a good bet the no-opinions-held-back singer had something to say about it -- and not entirely in, uh, lady-like terms. Robertson doesn't build this potentially dramatic element into his script, and since McDonald is likely to play for sell-out crowds start to finish, it's an element that's perhaps unfortunately absent.

(N. B.: Earlier this season, Dee Dee Bridgewater was Lady Day in Lady Day at the Little Shubert and also acquitted herself well. Since comparisons aren't called for, there will be none made here. Instead, many thanks to both Ladies Day.)

In a 2001 BBC/A&E documentary on Holiday, Annie Ross, who was friendly with the subject, says that Holiday's favorite album among the many she recorded was the 1958 "Lady in Satin" arranged and conducted by Ray Ellis. (Holiday died in July, 1959.) Ross, who agreed with the choice, says her personal reason for nominating that release, is, "There's a whole life in that voice."

Perhaps the most complimentary remark to be made about Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is that in 90 minutes and under Lonny Price's fully empathetic direction, she nails that voice and she gets that whole life. Send her flowers. Send her carloads of Holiday's favored gardenias.