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Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, at Wyndhams Theatre

30 June, 2017 — By Howard Loxton

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. PHOTO: MARC BRENNER

LADY Day is, of course, Billy Holliday – and Emerson’s a Philadelphia bar like the one where, in 1959, four months before her death aged 44, she gave a performance that dramatist Lanie Robertson has reimagined in this play. Award-winning Broadway actress and singer Audra McDonald, whose six Tonys include Carousel to Porgy & Bess and this show, plays Holliday. London would have seen it straight from Broadway had pregnancy and the birth of a daughter not intervened.

It is a tribute to Holliday, but in no way a typical one, for it shows the singer when her hard life including drink, drugs and imprisonment had taken a heavy toll. She makes her entrance shoulders slightly hunched, fists tight. A tumbler of spirits gets refilled frequently with effect on her speech and behaviour as she intersperses a set of 15 great songs with comment and anecdote.

“They won’t let me sing in clubs in New York,” she tells us. “They say I should change my name to Lady Yesterday.”

“I have to have flowers – gardenias,” then changes her mind: “I’m the new Billy now I don’t need flowers,” though the trademark gardenia is back later. Among the drug busts, rape when just 10, bad relationships, and racial insults come flashes of sardonic humour.

Lonny Price’s production presents the pathos of her situation but the songs are a dazzling reminder of her greatness.

McDonald doesn’t imitate Holliday, she recreates her and makes the songs her own while still keeping them Lady Day’s. God Bless the Child is particularly touching, the magnificently moving Strange Fruit given a particular harshness.

The band is a splendid trio of Frankie Tontoh on drums, Neville Malcolm on bass and Shelton Becton on piano as her MD Jimmy keeping a supportive eye on her. With cabaret tables spreading from the stage into the stalls there is a much grander audience then the seven she sang to in the real life Emerson’s and they got a performance that has been well worth waiting for.

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