Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Starring Audra McDonald
By Lanie Robertson
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Tickets & Information
This is neither a musical nor an impersonator doing Billie Holiday, rather it's a play with music. At just 90 minutes without interval, it is a perfectly crafted blend of a nightclub performance by Holiday with a biographical monologue. For those new to Holiday it will be revelation and for those familiar with her sad story it is a worthy celebration. It also demonstrates why Audra McDonald, who won her record 6th Tony for this, is a US national treasure now.
Lanie Robertson was inspired to write the show by a friend who had witnessed Holiday in a little dive in north Philadelphia in early 1959. Billie had stumbled on stage, obviously under the influence, carrying a little Chihuahua called Pepe whom she introduced to the audience. She and a piano player then performed 10 required hits to an audience of 7 before she staggered off. The image of the world's greatest jazz singer being so undervalued at the end of her life haunted him for years. She died only a few months later and this show is a recreation of that night.
Audra McDonald is simply mesmerising, whether it is being skittish with the piano player to get her way, or crude and rambling with everyone else, she captures Holiday's sturdily defiant air. Even while visibly falling apart from the ravages of drink and drugs she still came out fighting with a self-effacing wit. She slowly reveals why returning to Emerson's Bar was so painful, as it was the site of the incident that led to her imprisonment.
McDonald's trained voice is at times perhaps too powerful for the wraith-like Billie but she has Holiday's jazz styling down to a tee. Incapable of performing on cue "I need to let the song find me" she crieS and she thanks her ever faithful pianist Jimmy (Shelton Becton) who "makes me sing all the numbers I'm supposed to before I get juiced". Becton's exquisite piano playing is matched by Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass.
Christopher Oram's moody set transforms the Wyndham's into a mirror-balled den. The front rows have been removed and replaced by cabaret tables bedecked with elegant lamps, with additional cabaret seating enveloping the star on stage.
The pain that was so clearly etched in Holiday's voice had many sources, be it childhood neglect or downright abuse. This was followed by sojourns in 'cat houses' before she was discovered. Then it was a catalog of the wrong guys and the habitual humiliation of everyday racism of the most vicious kind. Often her white musicians, like Artie Shaw's band, showed solidarity with her and joined her to eat in the kitchens of those segregated hotels. She wittily recounts a painful encounter with a racist maître d' who wouldn't let her use any of the toilet facilities.
The show delivers all the shades of Billie. McDonald's recreation of Holiday's voice and attitude is perfect and she has the acting chops never to let it slide into maudlin self-pity.