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Audra McDonald Channels Billie Holiday

Audra McDonald Channels Billie Holiday

How Much Can Audra McDonald Sound Like Billie Holiday?

Audra McDonald gives an outstanding performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.

You will undoubtedly hear that what Audra McDonald is doing as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is not an impersonation. It is, though. However much more it eventually becomes, it starts with capturing that eccentric, heartbreaking voice — and the capture is uncanny. Right from the first syllables of “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” which opens the show, McDonald nails the pinched tone, side-mouth delivery, and precipitous register leaps of Holiday in her heyday. Consonants are negotiable: “love” is more like “luhw.” Final vowels become dramatic opportunities: “Hear my plea-uh and hurry home to me-uh!” Pitch is obscure or even absent; some notes sound fried in place yet remain part of the melody. McDonald’s Holiday doesn’t so much sing as play her voice, like a saxophone, with perfect confidence in (or indifference to) its expressive powers.

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