At first, it seems a bit studied, as if Audra McDonald were looking to find a challenge she hasn't already conquered in her astonishing five-Tony career. In "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," a late entry in the Broadway season, McDonald has taken on the task of impersonating a real person in what's virtually a solo show about the late jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose rough life story is almost as familiar as her distinctive sound.
McDonald, for all her versatility, tends to play forthright, complicated, fictional women who lack this Holiday's sort of self-dramatizing theatricality. Holiday, who died of cirrhosis and heart failure four months after the play's 1959 setting at a Philadelphia club, was already fragile -- an isolated tragic character in a racist society and a sloppy drunk, an addict begging for heroin and understanding.
Also, it takes a song or two before the mighty McDonald and her darker, heavier voice disappear into Holiday, this unlikely soul mate and legendary artist who describes herself here as a jazz singer with a blues sound. But by the time McDonald gets to "God Bless the Child," we have stopped noticing how conscientiously she ends Holiday's jazz phrases with a sustained flourish -- a slow "ayah" -- that lingers in the back of her throat as if searching for Holiday's improvisational sound.
Circle in the Square is pretty big and fancy for Lanie Robertson's 90-minute play-with-music, which ran Off-Broadway in 1986 and is meant to be Holiday's lingering, revealing swan song at a down-and-out bar.
But McDonald rivets the focus in a strapless white gown with long white gloves that we later learn are covering her track marks. Director Lonny Price puts the bandstand, with its jazz trio, above a seating area with cabaret tables and a bar. The rest of the audience sits in the traditional rows around the three-sided theater. As Holiday talks about family members -- especially her mixed emotions about her mother, nicknamed the Duchess -- and about the great influence of Louis Armstrong, photos appear in shadows behind the band.
McDonald doesn't let Holiday wallow as she tells us, almost offhandedly, about her rape at 10, her prostitution at 14, the macabre death of her great-grandmother, a slave, and the racism that haunted her career. Long before we are shocked, yet again, by the haunting images of her great song about racism, "Strange Fruit," this amazing actress and this jazz icon are indivisible.
WHAT "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"
WHERE Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway
INFO $97-$137; 212-239-6200; ladydayonbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Mismatched artists become soul mates