Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
The musical biopic of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, written by Lanie Robertson, returns to Wyndham’s Theatre. Audra McDonald, “the most celebrated star in Broadway history” and winner of an astonishing six Tony Awards, is Holiday. Set in a small south Philadelphia bar, a place that the singer played in the late 1950s a few months before her death, her life is depicted through classic songs such as God Bless the Child, Easy Livin’ and Strange Fruit. With a band playing double bass, piano and drums, tables with dimmed lamps, and warm colours of red, blue and yellow, it’s a perfect setting as a midnight bar.
Dressed in a white gown sparkling with diamante, and white elbow-length gloves, McDonald’s entrance transports us to the music scene of the 1950s. The ambience is flawless as she sings I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone – filled with the emotion of Holiday’s singing style, it’s as if we have travelled back in time to the dive bars of America.
Holiday’s life is told through her melancholic music as well as recurrent conversation with the audience: “…when I die I don’t care if I go to Heaven or Hell long’s it ain’t in Philly”. As the musician had been recently released from jail, and was cautious of the spying parole officers, we empathise with the challenges she faces finding work in a racist segregated society. Her life was far from breezy: she was sexually abused at the age of ten and had drug and alcohol addiction in later life, which McDonald expresses with great pathos. Accompanied by the band, pianist Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton) assists the performer through the set. We see the emotion in songs like Strange Fruit, which depicts the lynching of a man, after which the singer returns nestling a small Chihuahua, creating a lighthearted mood. She then places the signature white gardenias in her hair, completing the aesthetic of the jazz icon.
Keen sympathy is felt when she exclaims, “singing is life for me, but they won’t let me”. McDonald expertly shows the difficulties of Holiday’s life during the civil rights era, and trying to make a name for herself whilst facing racial abuse. Though infused with woeful sadness, there exists frank humour, which prompts numerous bursts of laughter in the audience. One particularly funny scene when she imitates Louis Armstrong then says, “I always wondered why he never sang any words”, is a jokey aside to Armstrong’s unique singing style.
Holiday is portrayed as a larger than life woman who was both tough and vulnerable, and who used music as a way to survive. The untarnished conversation is boldly contrasted with the sweet musical numbers. A rotating silver disco ball and blue lights accompany What a Little Moonlight Can Do, creating glimmers all around. Stopping midway in some tracks, McDonald brilliantly conveys the melancholia of Holiday’s life, but also the good times, like her tour with renowned clarinet player Artie Shaw.
Final musical number Deep Song is mouthed at the close, while the band ends with a bounding crescendo. McDonald gives a startling performance as the celebrated singer, her vocal range an incredible rendering of Holiday’s, and her sadness clearly portrayed through sensitive body movements and facial expressions. An astonishing portrayal of one of America’s finest female jazz singers, McDonald eases herself into character, leaving us with beautifully sentimental renditions of some of Billie Holiday’s classics.
Photos: Marc Brenner
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is at Wynham’s Theatre from 17th June until 9th September 2017. Book your tickets here.