It’s a five star performance the likes of which you’re unlikely to see again any time soon. Audra McDonald gives us Billie Holiday in the final stages of her turbulent life, by turns mischievous and funny, combative and maudlin, angry and lewd – and, throughout, increasingly vulnerable and very, very drunk.
The scene is the small, seedy Emerson's Bar and Grill in south Philadelphia on a March night, 1959. The front rows of the Wyndham’s stalls have been removed. In their stead bar tables and chairs create just the right atmosphere. If you can withstand the intensity of this performance and want to feel as though you’re part of it, then aim for tickets at those tables.
Billie Holiday, who got the nickname Lady Day from saxophonist Lester Young, is singing here with her three-men jazz band. This is the twilight of her life; four months hence, at only 44-years-old, she’ll be dead of cirrhosis and heart failure – conditions aggravated by a lifetime of drink and hard drug use.
Lanie Robertson’s play, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, is an homage to the woman she describes as 'the world's greatest jazz singer.' The structure is that of Lady Day’s show: a succession of famous, epoch-making musical numbers (God Bless the Child, T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do and many others) interspersed with the ever more rambling reminiscences of the singer as she addresses her audience and her long-suffering band leader, pianist Jimmy Powers.
It’s a brittle structure that in the hands of a less skilled performer might not entirely work. But from her first entrance, resplendent in a white glittering evening gown, Audra McDonald completely owns the stage, the character and the audience.
It’s an enthralling tour de force.
She takes us on a whirlwind tour of Billie Holiday’s life on edge: the poverty, the some-time prostitute mother who couldn’t care for her, but whom she adored, the musician father who abandoned the family early on, the lovers who used her and abused her. And always, persistently, in 20th century segregated America, the racism endured by people of colour, the daily humiliations and prohibitions, the insults, the legal injustices.
She tells us also about Billie Holiday’s love for music, her unique talent, the inspiration she drew from another jazz/blues great, Bessie Smith. She rejects the label of blues singer, though, 'I'm a jazz singer,' Lady Day states. Or rather she does 'the blues feeling but with jazz beats.'
And when Audra McDonald breaks into song, the similarity to Billie Holiday, not only in the tone and modulation of her stunning voice, but in the feeling she injects into the numbers bring out the goosebumps. The climax of the show, the one number that everything builds up to, is the song Strange Fruit, a searing indictment of the racist lynchings in the American deep south.
You know it’s coming; but when it does, it – and McDonald – send shivers down your spine.
Watching multiple award-winner Audra McDonald – six Tonys, two Grammys and the 2015 National Medal of the Arts, the US highest honour in the Arts field – feels like a privilege, and one which the audience acknowledged with a spontaneous, roaring standing ovation.
She is well-served by her musicians – Shelton Becton (piano), Frankie Tontoh (drums) and Neville Malcolm (bass) – and by a staggeringly numerous cast of creatives and producers.
Not forgetting, in a moment of whimsy, a very laid-back Chihuahua, acting the short but audience-pleasing part of Billie Holiday’s much-loved dog, Pepi.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill opened on Broadway in March 2014 to record ticket-sales and a flurry of awards and has finally hit the West End. It will probably rate as THE show of the summer in London.
|What||Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill Review|
32 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA | MAP
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
17 Jun 17 – 09 Sep 17, Check website for additional timing
|Price||£19.50 - £62.50|
|Website||Click here to book now|