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4/15/14

Lady Day's Tale of Godra and Bullshit

As I am sure we all have said once or twice or twenty times before, Audra McDonald could sip water and read her electric bill on stage and it would be fantastic. Quite possibly, the performance of the season. Such is the power of the Godra...respect it and bow down.

And in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, taking shop at the Circle in the Square Theatre, Godra...well, she does more then sit down and read. She is playing Billie Holiday in all of her post-imprisonment, pre-death glory at the title spot in Philadelphia circa 1959. And by glory, I mean booze and drugs and belting jazz for miles. You know, amidst regaling the audience with jokes and stories and hard times that Lady Day endured throughout her 44 years of cray.

So, kudos to the production for essentially giving Billie Holiday lovers a show chock-full of Billie Holidayness. Double kudos for having Godra - looking fabulous in a white dress designed by Emilio Sosa of Porgy and Bess and Project Runway fame - star and inhabit Holiday, right down to her spot-freaking-on singing voice. But I'm not sorry when I say this. is. bullshit.

Because beyond the Godra (man, I never get bored with that nickname), everything else about Lady Day is wrong. Lanie Robertson's story is huge sack of nothing. Billie Holiday is this creature of hardships and controversy and kickass jazz tunes. Yet, Robertson's show is a minimal, verging on non-existent "here she is; she'll tell you a highlight reel of some shit that went down. Oh, and sing some 16 songs!" 

No really, that is it. Not exactly boring, but the conceit is pretty thin, no?

Lonny Price's direction doesn't even bother to help, with him mostly plopping Billie Holiday up on stage with a band and setting her loose. It's all well and good when Lady Day stumbles through the audience; there is a general dread that girlie will pass out into the ground or faceplant on to someone's table. But the images projected behind her as she regales us with stories look crude and harsh...like looking at a series of smudged oil paintings. And when Lady Day is standing still and singing, the entire show looks indistinguishable from your average 54 Below show (no offense, concert space).

And the most relevant issue I can't look pass...Lady Day, with its 16 songs, is allegedly a "play with music." Um, what? No, really...whut? 16 songs, a cast recording and...you know, like remember when all those plays release their expected cast albums? Oh, you don't? Funny, neither do I.

Okay, what crack did they blaze up and how much is a hit? Holiday is singing for a third of her 90-minute show and has more songs then most other musicals currently running. Hell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch only has eleven music numbers and that is considered a musical. But this? THIS?

Obvious question: why not fledge out the book to be a two-and-a-half hour bio-musical in the Beautiful mold, and actually...you know, try? Focus on the entirety of Holiday's life or heck, trudge forward with the last months until she croaks. Both can honest-to-Godra work. That is a reason why Beautiful is getting high marks whereas A Night with Janis Joplin and portions of this show are not (as much). It's almost insulting to mount these types of shows on Broadway with how underdesigned and underwhelming they are. IT’S BROADWAY! BALLS to the WALLS, y’all! You can’t have Audra McDonald do ALL of your heavy lifting.

Well okay, you can. Because she is not of this world of human mortality and limits. But there is more to a show - ANY show - then the performance (s) and between that, directing and writing, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill only has one of the three down pat.


Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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