Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
by Lanie Robertson | Dir. Lonny Price
It is hard to imagine that Audra McDonald, a SIX time Tony Award-winning Broadway legend, is only making her West End debut with Lady Day in 2017. By the time the show closes, the audience up on their feet, you are left with no doubt that the labels ‘icon’ and ‘Broadway Royalty’ are truly deserved.
Lady Day, Audra McDonald, the nickname given to Billie Holiday by Lester Young, finds herself back in Philadelphia in 1959.
The only reason why she’s in the city at all is to play for her friends at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and though Holiday finds some happiness in playing at Emerson’s with her three-piece jazz band led by Jimmy Powers Shelton Becton, she is clearly in the grip of a melancholy she can’t fight anymore.
Power’s tries his best to keep Holiday on track and refuses to admit defeat right up to the very end.
But this is a Lady Day’s farewell performance of sorts, her last chance to be with her friends and to be in a place she feels most comfortable but throughout the show Holiday struggles to beat her demons into submission. As her concert continues the songs begin to get much more emotionally difficult for Holiday to finish.
Only 44 Holiday, born Eleonora Fagan in 1915, had lived life a that seemed too much for just one person to contend with. Throughout the show Holiday’s childhood, parents, her mother the Duchess, and her first ‘worst’ love Sonny Monroe, the man who would get her hooked on heroin, all help to shape Holiday's experience.
There is something that conflicts with you when you hear Holiday talk about Sonny, the man who would cost her some of her closest friendships. Though she is aware of the damage and danger that this relationship has had on her she never speaks of him in a negative way. It is as though she has become the only person that understands his pain, fear and confusion making them unlikely kindred spirits.
Robertson has McDonald speak from the heart and in these moments the audience is privy to darkness that follows Holiday.
This comes to ahead with a story Holiday tells about touring with Artie Shaw and his band. Though there is humour within the story of having to eat in the kitchen because the restaurant didn’t allow black patrons, the story never loses its sting.
The reality of facing racism in such a blatant, unrestricted and unlimited way was something many performers, before and after Holiday, would have had to endure. This idea of being good enough to perform but not good enough to eat at their tables is a weird paradox to be in.
As the story comes to an end the first notes to Strange Fruit are struck by Jimmy on his piano and the silence in the theatre becomes audible. Lewis Allen’s unforgettable song is beautifully horrific in its description of lynching, every word hits the listener hard bringing us unimaginable images of a reality faced by African Americans at this time. This racism of the time plays a vital part in Roberson’s text and truly needs to be here.
The text never sensationalises Holiday’s life or trivialise it but rather celebrates an icon, a performer who had an unmatched gift but little ability to overcome her past. Christopher Oram’s set transforms Wyndham’s stage into the Emerson’s Bar & Grill adding an extra touch of authenticity and the attention to detail is remarkable.
Audra McDonald is flawless in her portrayal of Billie Holiday and captivates her audience from the very moment show sloshes through the velvet curtains and makes her way to the stage.
'Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is respectful, brutal, heartbreaking and honest.'
Through good humour, vulgar jokes, stunning musical renditions and McDonald’s charisma Robertson bring Holiday's heavy and aching experiences to the stage, one that perhaps gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘a tragic life’.
And with the band, Becton (Piano), Frankie Tontoh (Drums) & Neville Malcolm (Bass) being the only other people on stage the need for them to be present but politely aloof was essential. They sit in awe but also aware that things are not too good for Billie but they never seek to undermine her because when she’s on she’s on.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is unforgettable there are few shows on the West End that can come close to touching the brilliance, beauty, and majesty that this production has.