Many see Billie Holiday as one of the greatest ever Jazz artists, a legend in her field. Audra McDonald, on the other hand, is a theatrical goddess, who has won more Tony awards than any other performer and so in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill you really do have a legend playing a legend.
The musical play – which finally opened this week following a postponement from last autumn due to McDonald unexpectedly falling pregnant – depicts a real episode in Holiday’s life; just four weeks before she died of cirrhosis and heart failure.
It’s set just after the singer was arrested for illegal procession of narcotics and represents a performance in a seedy Philadelphia club, where the famed vocalist played to a ramshackle audience.
The Wydham’s Theatre has been transformed for the show, with the first few rows of seats removed to make way for cabaret style tables and onstage seats for those who wish to feel really immersed in the action.
But it’s not just the theatre, which receives a makeover – or in this case a makeunder – as we are made to witness a transformation by McDonald so remarkable, you have to see it to believe it.
Gone is the self assured Broadway star with exquisite deportment and rich soprano timbre and in her place we see a fragile, shaky character with a gravelly jazz vocal so authentic, you could be listening to a recording.
It’s a heart wrenching sight, but you can’t help but become mesmerised by McDonald’s performance as she beautifully renders some of Billie Holiday’s most famous numbers (“T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Strange Fruit”) with absolute faithfulness, while imparting anecdotally some of her former triumphs and disasters.
It’s a shame the show focused mostly on her demise, rather than her accomplishments and it feels like a tragic end to a life filled with so much promise.
The show is however a riveting watch and Audra McDonald proves, once again, why she is one of the most gifted performers of her generation.
Reviewed by Nicky Sweetland
Photo: Marc Brenner
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until 9 September 2017. Book tickets