Thursday 3rd August 2017 at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
When Audra McDonald sang the first line of the first Billie Holiday song in Lady Day, I forgot to exhale the breath I had taken.
Never before have I seen one talented individual channel the distinctive, towering talent of another quite so impeccably. Having listened to the greats of Holiday’s era for years, lamenting the fact that I would never see any of them perform, here I was listening to and watching Billie Holiday. Who would have thought anyone at all could do this great lady such justice? Not me.
Yet McDonald effortlessly delivers all of holiday’s distinctive vocal nuances and knocks each rendition of each song right out of the park, without exception. Put simply, Audra Macdonald as Lady Day is absolutely awe inspiring.
She delivers a performance of great depth, showing Holiday’s fire, wit and vulnerability along with a much softer side through her friendship with Jimmy Powers and her beloved dog Pepi. To play a character in such physical and mental disarray and emotional distress while also perfecting the delivery of each song, in Holiday’s tone and style, is surely just as challenging to achieve as it is impressive to see.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, is inspired by a boyfriend of Robertson’s experience of seeing Holiday perform in a tiny, run down venue to a tiny audience in 1959, four months before her death. The show presents the audience with a tipsy Holiday making her way to the stage in a graceful dress (Emilio Sosain) which is incongruously at odds with her slow and unsteady movement.
Upon that stage, she shares various anecdotes about her life with flippant fearlessness, shockingly yet winningly blunt delivery and the ability to laugh at herself and those around her. Though Robertson doesn’t exactly paint Holiday as a victim here, she does include the tragedy of the darkest points of Holiday’s life and unflinchingly highlights the many, many examples of her outrageous ill treatment.
It is Audra McDonald’s defiant, often uncomfortable and sometimes shocking portrayal of the woman behind the performances that rejects the notion of Billie Holiday ever accepting the injustices of her life, though she is clearly aware of her increasing inability to cope with the instability created by her reliance on drugs and liquor
Simplicity is key in this production, with set design from Christopher Oram creating the intimate, soft setting with careful simplicity and Mark Henderson’s lighting complimenting the story with stark transitions between Holiday’s escapism through song and each of her returns to reality.
Joined only by a small band comprised of pianist (and Musical Director, also playing Jimmy Powers) Shelton Becton, drummer Frankie Tontoh and bassist Neville Malcolm, McDonald gorgeously channels Holiday’s rich, spontaneous style for various songs including Crazy He Calls Me, Somebody’s on My Mind, Don’t Explain and of course, the haunting, devastating Strange Fruit, delivered with such feeling and grit by McDonald.
The intoxication and implied drug use give way to both humour and distinct discomfort as she tells stories of the hideous treatment at the hands of bigoted white people and various abusers. She throws up references to horrific incidents as if mentioning that someone called earlier, and that forced nonchalance and refusal to crumble makes McDonald’s performance truly superb.
The writing also celebrates Holiday’s wit and connection with her audience. Although one tale in particular is dark, her delivery invites shared laughter and collective mockery of the villain, so even with all the tragedy of this production, Robertson ensures that there are lighter moments to drape the memory of Holiday’s strength with deserved recognition and respect
One thing is very certain when it comes to Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill: this kind of show combined with this kind of talent – talent of Audra McDonald’s calibre – is something truly exceptional. If you have an appreciation of the wonderful talent of Billie Holiday, jazz, blues or this period of music, you will not want to miss this show.
Lady Day plays at the Wyndham’s Theatre until September 9th and you can get your tickets here .