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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Lanie Robertson
Wyndham's Theatre

Audra McDonald Credit: Marc Brenner
Audra McDonald Credit: Marc Brenner
Audra McDonald Credit: Marc Brenner

For any reader who is not a jazz aficionado, Lady Day is the nickname of the legendary Billie Holiday, born with the name Eleonora Fagan, the great-granddaughter of a slave and subject of this autobiographical cabaret.

The performance is set in the rather seedy Emerson’s Bar and Grill in South Philadelphia in 1959, by which time the singer’s career was irretrievably on the skids.

During the 100 or so minutes, it becomes both a tribute to a star and a wonderful vehicle for the acting and singing talents of Audra McDonald, who created the role on Broadway and finally gets the chance to impress Londoners—and they will be impressed.

Wyndham’s Theatre has been partially reconfigured for the occasion, with cabaret style tables set out around the performers on stage and in place of rows A to G in the stalls.

While what takes place within them is close to a solo extravaganza, credit has to be given to the musical trio, a pianist, drummer and bassist. Shelton Becton who directs from the piano also gets in on the act playing Jimmy Powers, Miss Hollday’s pianist / manager / minder, not the easiest of jobs as the play ably demonstrates.

The opening sees the star performing on stage, revealing a gorgeous, syrupy voice and so much feeling that it almost overcomes her obvious intoxication (Billie Holiday’s, not Audra McDonald’s). Inevitably as the evening develops, alcohol becomes a more significant factor, while an unscheduled departure from the stage might well have involved a swift injection of heroin.

After the first couple of songs, the performance is then divided between a moving autobiographical portrait and further selections from the back catalogue, each delivered as well as the other in a memorable tour de force.

The story is genuinely tragic. Born when her mother was 13 and father 15, the youngster was always likely to be up against it and, by the age of 10, she had been raped, while at 16 her surprisingly innocent mother, affectionately referred to as the Duchess, found a job for the youngster in a house, not realising its ill repute.

The strong-willed, 200lbs teenager soon made her escape and, after failing to impress as an overweight dancer, tried her luck singing and immediately found a career and possible escape from poverty.

The singer’s downfall came after meeting the love of her life, Sonny. Unfortunately, he was a bad man, not only taking and probably selling drugs but also palming them off on Billie when the cops came calling. The consequence was a year in prison, after which she struggled to revive her career while life also headed downhill at speed on a ski slope of artificial stimulants.

Much of the best storytelling involves America’s overt racism in the middle of the last century. The best tale of all takes place in a kitchen in Birmingham Alabama, where an awkward maîtresse d’ picked a fight with the wrong lady, leading to hilarious consequences.

Directed by Lonny Price, the combination of Audra McDonald and Billie Holiday with a series of memorable songs such as “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” should ensure that this soulful if sad import sells well.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher