Theatre

Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Audra McDonald marvels as Billie Holliday at Wyndham's Theatre.

Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald is Broadway’s most celebrated star in history. That’s more Tonys than any other performer, and she’s the only actor to win all four major acting categories at the awards.

Before even thinking about Lady Day (for which she won one of those aforementioned Tonys), it’s worth just taking a moment to take that in. She is, quite simply, a theatrical phenomenon.

Here at the Wyndham’s she is intoxicatingly good. Sure, her voice is astounding – you don’t win Tonys for being a duffer – but it’s so much more than that, too.

As Billie Holiday she completely embodies the jazz singer in ways that some of the greatest impressionists and impersonators have failed to do over the years.

When she sings, it sounds like you’re listening to a Holiday record; when she talks, in drawling tones and punchy one-liners, she sounds like the diva. It’s really something.

Narratively, the play takes place near the end of Holiday’s life. She is no longer the star she once was, and is instead somewhat washed-up and listless; a has-been. Addled by her heroin addiction and dependency on booze, she stumbles across the stage, and is hunched and nervy-looking throughout; it’s quite the stark contrast to usual portrait depicted of such a celebrated star.

Here, she is appearing at South Philly’s Emerson’s Bar & Grill, an intimate venue where she can perform for her “friends” (she and barkeep Em’ go “way back”) and the structure of the play follows her concert at the tiny venue.

Between songs (including Strange Fruit, What a little Moonlight Can Do and Somebody’s On My Mind), Holiday regales the audience with stories from her life, recounting her history both through her glory days as a superstar and her more humble beginnings (the “highs and lows”, as she calls them).

For those not privy to Holiday’s life, it’s a tragic one. We shan’t spoil details here, but the way some of the more harrowing episodes are played out through these raw, sprawling monologues is incredibly well done and remarkably disarming – McDonald’s delivery is in turns both heartbreaking and hilarious, it completely pulls you in.

Such intimacy (of what is essentially a one-woman show) is further bolstered by the set, so that the Wyndham’s relatively small stage is kitted out to look like a tiny bar of the jazz age.

Tables and bar stools are scattered across the stage, where audience members sit, so up close to the action that McDonald stumbles around them, sits with them and talks directly to them.

The stalls have also been ripped out, replaced with tables and chairs to resemble a smoky underground cocktail bar. It’s incredibly effective.

We were sat at the front of the Royal Circle, in regular rows of theatre seats, but the effect was no less beguiling – it felt like we were looking down and spying on the most intimate real-life scene.

It’s worth noting that Lady Day was supposed to come to the West End a couple of years ago, almost direct from that Tony Award-winning run on Broadway; but when McDonald got pregnant, the show was cancelled – producers simply preferred to wait for her to return to performing before staging such an ambitiously honest, precise production.

And so authentic does the play feel that we’re still reeling from it days later. It’s a powerful tribute to one of the most celebrated stars of her generation, and with McDonald at the helm they can’t go wrong.

Like Holiday, she is the star here, and audiences should grab the chance to see her with both hands. We’re sure she’s got more awards coming her way, and quite frankly, they couldn’t be more deserving.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs at Wyndham’s Theatre until 9 September 2017. Tickets are on sale now – get yours at Ticketmaster.co.uk.

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