By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Singer Audra McDonald, a five-time Tony winner, channels legendary American jazz singer Billie Holiday in the Broadway musical "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" in a performance critics described as a "spellbinding tour de force" and "intoxicating."
McDonald, 43, is a classically trained soprano who won her last best actress Tony for "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" in 2012. But in "Lady Day" she becomes Holiday, who is considered one of the greatest jazz singers ever.
The musical, which debuted off-Broadway nearly 30 years ago, opened on Sunday at the Circle in the Square theater for a limited 10-week run.
"With her plush, classically trained soprano scaled down to jazz-soloist size, Ms. McDonald sings selections from Holiday's repertoire with sensitive musicianship and rich seams of feeling that command rapt admiration," said the New York Times.
The entertainment industry publication Variety said the musical "was waiting for a great singer like Audra McDonald to reach out and bring this tragic figure back from the grave," while the Los Angeles Times said it is a "showcase for McDonald's rare artistry."
The show, written by Lanie Robertson ("Back County Crimes" and "Nasty Little Secrets") is set in a small, seedy bar in Philadelphia, where Holiday, in poor health, performed before a handful of people just a month before she died in 1959.
Although Robertson was not at the bar for the performance, it was described to him by a lover who was there, which prompted him to write the show.
Holiday, who was nicknamed "Lady Day" by saxophonist Lester Young, had what the musical's director Lonny Price ("Master Harold ... and the Boys") described as a Dickensian kind of upbringing.
But despite her impoverished childhood, abusive relationship and addiction, Holiday's extraordinary talent and distinctive style assured her stardom, even in the racially divided America of the 1930 and 1940s.
Although she enjoyed fame, Holiday died a poor drug addict at the age of 44.
The bio-musical depicts Holiday's tragic life through songs such as "God Bless the Child," "Crazy He Calls Me," "Strange Fruit" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and a monologue about her life - the poverty, drugs, a rape and the humiliation and discrimination she suffered.
The audience is transported back to 1959 and the Philadelphia club for that memorable performance. McDonald interacts with her pianist and is accompanied by a small jazz band, but it is essentially a solo performance.
"In more than a dozen songs, she captures the plaintive sound, the eccentric phrasing and all the little vocal catches that identify Billie Holiday's unique style. But it's her extraordinary sensitivity as an actor that makes McDonald's interpretation memorable," said Variety.
The Hollywood Reporter was equally enthusiastic.
"McDonald inhabits the role with such respect for the damaged character she's playing - not to mention such uncanny vocal transformation - that what could be a fragile construct becomes an immersive drama graced with complex character shadings," the trade publication said.
(Editing by Eric Kelsey and Cynthia Osterman)