Circle in the Square (50th St. between Broadway/8th Ave.)
Lead Cast: Audra McDonald (Billie Holiday), Shelton Becton (Jimmy Powers, her pianist)
Written By: Lanie Robertson; Directed By: Lonny Price
Background: According to the Playbill, the play is based on an actual performance by Billie Holiday in a dive bar in Philadelphia witnessed by a boyfriend of the playwright: “She stumbled in obviously ‘quite high,’ carrying her little Chihuahua Pepi, whom she introduced to her audience. A water glass was kept filled with booze atop the piano for her. She and a piano player performed 10 or 12 of her songs for an audience of seven patrons. Then, she staggered out.”
The Plot: The place is Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a small bar in South Philadelphia. The time is March, 1959, around midnight. Jazz great Billie Holiday—drinking throughout her performance—becomes progressively more inebriated and sloppy as her set goes on. Four months later, she would be dead of cirrhosis and heart failure, at the age of 44.
In a Nutshell: Just as the play depicts Billie Holiday at a low point in her career, Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day shows us a great talent at the height of her powers. McDonald won a record-setting sixth Tony Award (for Best Actress in a Play) for her brilliant performance in this show, where, in contrast to the performance she reenacts, she has been playing to sold-out audiences night after night.
The Performance: For fans of Ms. McDonald, Ms. Holiday, or both, the performance is a complex, multi-layered experience. On the one hand, we see Ms. McDonald, ravishing in a white gown trimmed with sequins. On other, we simultaneously see Ms. Holiday, a tragic figure who is desperately trying to keep it together while performing. Ms. McDonald does an uncanny impression of Billie Holiday’s unique vocal style. If you close your eyes, you truly can imagine yourself back in 1959, as one of those 7 audience members at Emerson’s, where even near the end of her life, Holiday’s brilliance shines through her obvious pain. But when you open your eyes, you can’t stop thinking that you’re watching Audra McDonald, one of the most talented and accomplished Broadway stars of her generation. Are you watching Audra or Billie? They’re both up there on the stage, simultaneously.
While McDonald’s performance is extraordinary throughout the 95-minute show, the musical highlight is her achingly beautiful rendition of Billie’s dark song “Strange Fruit,” a poem set to music about the lynching of a black man in the South:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”
It is painful to witness the decline and despair of a singular talent like the Billie Holiday at Emerson’s, but it is at the same time uplifting to witness the brilliance of the gifted Audra McDonald in remembering and honoring the late Lady Day.
A Bit More About Billie: Billie Holiday’s life was tough and tragic from the start. Born in 1915 to a young, unwed mother, she was raped as a young child, worked as a prostitute, abused drugs and alcohol, had relationships with abusive men, and served prison time. In fact, as she lay dying in New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital, her room was under police guard because of an arrest for drug possession. She did experience popular success: she played to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall in 1948 and her recording of “God Bless the Child” (which she wrote) sold over a million records. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was published in 1956, along with an album of the same name. Diana Ross was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying Billie in the 1972 film version. Billie got her nickname, “Lady Day,” from her friend, saxophonist Lester Young.
Should You Go? Yes! There’s no way you won’t enjoy this production, I promise. What’s not to like? Broadway great Audra McDonald, 15 classic songs accompanied by a flawless trio of musicians, and a tribute to a jazz legend, all packed into an intermissionless 95 minutes. But don’t delay: although the show has been extended several times, like Billie Holiday’s career, it won’t last forever. The show is currently extended through October 5.
Trivia: As previously mentioned, Audra McDonald has won a record-breaking 6 Tony Awards (3 of them by age 28): Lady Day, Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The Julliard-trained soprano is also a two-time Grammy Award-winner and played “Mother Abbess” in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! She is married to actor Will Swenson, Broadway star of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair, the recent revival of Les Miserables, and the upcoming Bull Durham.
Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are available at Playbill.com and frequently at the Times Square TKTS booth. I printed out the Playbill.com offer and took it to the box office to purchase very good seats at $85. If money is no object, you can purchase Circle Club seats ($200), tables close to the stage where you can sip cocktails (included). Ms. McDonald occasionally walks among the tables and interacts with those lucky audience members. (Note: children under 12 are not permitted at Circle Club tables).