Holy Mother of Theatre Land, that Audra McDonald sure can sing! And act. And probably walk on water if we asked her to. She didn’t just own the Wyndham’s stage in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, she practically had it in chains. I think I felt its surrender through the floorboards, right around the time I was ready to throw myself at her feet while screaming: “Thank you!”
Appearing as Billie Holiday – nicknamed Lady Day by saxophonist Lester Young – McDonald turned in an infallible portrayal of the Jazz legend. It was a remarkable performance; possibly the best we’ll get to see on a London stage this year.
At one point, an adorable Chihuahua tried his best to hog the limelight but the ambitious pooch had no chance of overshadowing the Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award-winning star. The operatic soprano picked up her sixth Tony Award following the play’s debut in New York, making her the only person to receive awards in all four acting categories.
Mirroring Holiday’s nods to musical influences of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, McDonald’s singing traversed through gravel pits, honey traps and cooling breezes over the course of 15 songs. These included a glorious cover of Smith’s, ‘Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer’, the toe-tapper, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, and the timeless classic, ‘God Bless the Child’, which Holiday wrote for her mother.
Set in 1959, just a few months before the singer’s death, the location is a Philadelphia nightspot, with table seating available to book on stage and in front of the stalls. Writer Lanie Robertson was inspired by the experience of an old boyfriend – who caught Holiday performing in a local dive shortly before she passed away – and the narrative is likely to unsettle as many people as it entertains.
The singer-songwriter had an exquisite voice but her life wasn’t all gardenias and glory. Surviving racism, sexual abuse, poverty, prison and a heck of a lot more injustices than any one person should ever have to endure, Holiday died at the age of 44, her body ravaged by drugs and alcohol.
The character presented on stage had the allure and vulnerability of a butterfly wing: mesmerising, yet heart-wrenchingly frail, alternating unexpectedly between an upward soar and a sorrowful crash. MacDonald convincingly swayed and stumbled towards each song, capturing the unsteady movements of a boozing junkie as well as the nuances of Holiday’s vocal range.
It was a brutally candid show, chasing Holiday’s demons as well as her talent, to explicate why she sang “the blues with a Jazz beat”. Revelations about being raped at the age of 10 and working as a teenaged prostitute were casually sandwiched between stories of working with composers Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. The latter took Holiday on tour through the deeply racist Southern states of the USA and although Robertson’s script included humour to recount these tales, their sharp lash was quick and powerful.
When McDonald sang ‘Strange Fruit’, it was as if hearing the song for the first time. The horror of the lyrics, about the lynching of black people in America, settled over the theatre like the Black Death. For a second, it seemed as if the audience had stopped breathing; glassy eye balls staring up and wide towards the stage, where the singer, clad in white, dazzled against the backdrop like a flash of bright light.
As the show progressed, it was clear that McDonald’s only genuine rival was the production’s unflinching honesty. It was as beautiful as any note ever sung by the music icon, rendering Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill as unforgettable as the woman it painstakingly honours. The crowd’s chants of “Bravo!” – which forced McDonald to return for a third bow before a standing ovation – are still ringing in my ears.
It was almost a one woman show but, in addition to the dog mentioned earlier, McDonald shared the stage with a fabulous three piece band: drummer Frankie Tontoh, bass player Neville Malcolm, and the play’s Musical Director, Shelton Becton, on piano. Becton also had the role of Jimmy Powers, Billie’s manager, patiently prompting her whenever she forgot her lyrics.
I always thought the ostentatious décor of London’s Wyndham’s Theatre couldn’t get more dazzling, but with its ornate Louis XVI-style interior jazzed up and glittering with one of Broadway’s most decorated stars, the spirit of Lady Day was conjured in the most glorious heaven. You couldn’t ask for a more fitting home for the transcendent talents of Audra McDonald and the divine songs of Billie Holiday.
Cast: Audra McDonald, Shelton Becton (piano), Neville Malcolm (bass) and Frankie Tontoh (drums) Director: Lonny Price Writer: Lanie Robertson Theatre: Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London Performance Dates: 17th June to 9th September 2017