An utterly intoxicating evening with Billie Holiday - Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Wyndham’s Theatre, review
“Every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius,” Frank Sinatra once said of Billie Holiday. Jazz-loving Philip Larkin, paying tribute to Holiday as well as the blues legend who inspired her, Bessie Smith, couldn’t have been more glowing in his admiration: “These two women gave the world more than it could ever have repaid, even if it had tried.”
Bringing the Broadway star and six times Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald to the West End stage for the first time, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill does its bit, doomed though it be to fall short, to pay tribute to Holiday.
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Having had its London run postponed from last autumn (McDonald had a baby daughter to give birth to), this portrait of the “Lady” arrives almost 60 years after the singer succumbed, aged 44, to cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure; she had suffered the ignominy of being arrested and hand-cuffed while in hospital in her final days – her voice, according to one newspaper, “cracked and eroded by the careless years of drug addiction, whisky drinking and other malign influences”.
Lanie Robertson’s “musical play” – first seen in 1986 – doesn’t give us the tear-jerking spectacle of a spent force, even though it’s set four months before her death in July 1959. Instead, it embellishes a real-life event of unmistakable pathos: the night Holiday, hard-up and out of favour (prohibited from playing New York), pitched up in a dive in Philadelphia – the city of her birth – to perform to a paltry crowd. And yet the key-note of this all-too-fleeting affair, just 90 minutes long, is joy. It’s a joy partly stoked artificially (with Holiday knocking back the gin and heading off mid-set, to the dismay of her pianist, drummer and bassist, to mainline some heroin, and retrieve her adorable Chihuahua). But primarily it derives from being among friends and singing her heart out.
When McDonald warbles as Lady Day, it’s as if she’s pouring divine nectar into your ears; here, beautifully modulated, is all the playfulness, mischief, yearning, sadness and stoicism to be found in those crackling recordings of long ago. “Woo-oo-ooo, what a little moonligh’ can do-oooh-aah,” this elegant vision in white purrs early on, applying sly wolf-ish inflections to the phrasing of that 1934 love song while caressing away its hard consonants. She’s introduced as Billie “God Bless the Child’” Holiday and sure enough – despite her affected reluctance – she renders that signature number impeccably well, along with, later on and equally faultlessly, “Strange Fruit”, that heart-stopping lament for black victims of lynchings.
The squiffy, meandering and stammering between-songs chatter includes much memorable anecdotage but also bluntly telegrammed bits of auto-bio (“I’ll never forget that – that and being raped when I was 10,” runs one frank aside). Lonny Price’s production toils too crudely, as well, to conjure the right nocturnal ambiance with premium-price drinking-tables in the stalls (plus decidedly non-period dressed punters on-stage).
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Yet all is forgiven whenever McDonald, eyes sealing in reverie, banishing a world of cares, croons: it’s utterly intoxicating.
Lady Day is playing at Emerson's Bar & Grill at the Wyndham's Theatre until Sept 9. Book your tickets to avoid disappointment at tickets.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 2118.