Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (Wyndham’s Theatre)

Posted: July 22, 2017 in Theatre


The sight of a fellow human being disintegrating before our eyes is not something that should be enjoyed, so perhaps the 105 minutes of Heavenly pleasure that Lady Day… gives ought to be accompanied by a feeling of guilt. Lanie Robertson has written this musical play from a personal account that he heard of a gig performed by Billie Holiday in 1959 at the Philadelphia club in the show’s full title. Aged 44, she was in the last year of her life and her singing career was as much on the rocks as the spirits in the glass clutched in her hand.

With the front half dozen rows of seating at Wyndham’s removed to be replaced by tables and a few audience members on stage, Audra McDonald reprises her Tony Award winning role as Holiday, directed by Lonny Price. She is accompanied by piano, bass and drums, with pianist Shelton Becton acting as MC. Holiday’s pet Chihuahua Pepi (played by Tilly) make a fleeting appearance late on when the singer is barely sober enough to carry her.  Set in an era when the American Civil Rights movement had still to gain momentum, Holiday’s anecdotes tell of segregation, her mother, her yearning for a child, time in “the slammer”, drugs, booze and worthless men, all of them reflected in the timeless songs, many written by Holiday herself. The lady does not sing the Blues, she insists, rather jazz.

We feel all Holiday’s pain through McDonald’s mesmerising performance and her faultless velvety tones. Songs such as Crazy He Calls Me, and God Bless the Child are familiar, others are little heard these days. The extraordinary Strange Fruit soothes us and, at the same time, chills us to the bone. If only this show and indeed Billie Holiday’s life could have gone on for longer!

Performance date: 19 July 2017

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