Mega Broadway star Audra McDonald is making her West End Debut in a show where she performs as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. And while most of us have never actually seen the real Holiday sing live, I can only imagine McDonald is as close as the real thing.
Billy Holiday, who was known as ‘Lady Day’, had one of the greatest jazz voices of all time. But sadly she died at the age of 44 in 1959 after a turbulent life, which included drug and alcohol addiction. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill takes place in South Philadelphia right before her death, and where she sings and also tells stories about her life, loves, and family. She recounts the time she was performing with musician Artie Shaw in an all-white club and was refused the use of the all-white woman’s bathroom so she pissed on the floor. Lady Day mentions that her mother called The Duchess married at the age of 16 and her father was 19, while she was three. And she rasps lyrical about the love of her life, Sunny, who didn’t exactly treat her like a lady. And she briefly mentions the year she spent in prison for drug possession. All this, plus signature Holliday songs such as Strange Fruit, Easy Livin’ and many many others are beautifully done at The Wyndham’s Theatre which has been crafted to emulate the original Emerson’s Tavern as it was known. And McDonald is astonishing as Holliday.
It’s not just that McDonald is acting like Holiday, but McDonald sings like Holiday as well. There’s a reason why McDonald has one 6 Tony Awards, she is one if not the most accomplished stage actress of our time. The likes of Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone or Elaine Paige don’t hold a candle to McDonald. She’s appeared on stage in both musicals and dramas such as Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun and Master Class when she was young where she proved that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Accompanied by Shelton Becton on piano, Frankie Tontoh on Drums and Neville Malcolm on Bass, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a lush tribute to the woman who died way before her time, and a tribute to the woman who plays her – it’s a tour de force performance.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is playing until September 9, 2017. Regular seats can be purchased, or there are several tables in the stalls and even some on the stage that are for sale for those who want a complete cabaret experience.
Photo by The Corner Shop PR
Review by Tim Baros