Washed up, wasted on booze and strung out on hard drugs. This is Billie Holiday performing car crash cabaret…and singer Audra McDonald giving the performance of her career.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill opened tonight at Wyndham’s Theatre and McDonald’s turn as jazz and blues singer Holiday is extraordinary.
The front stalls at the West End venue have been removed to make way for cabaret tables with more up on the stage in the wings.
Here some of the audience are able to see Holiday up close and it’s not pretty. The star, who rose from the gutter to become one of music’s most influential names, starts the performance already intoxicated, her voice slurred and she’s unsteady on her feet.
Throughout the show she knocks back tumblers of booze and, unable to get through to the end without help, stumbles off-stage only to return with fresh needle marks – and her adorable Chihuahua Pepi (played by Tilly, a true canine star).
The performance takes place in a Philadelphia bar in 1959, just four months before the singer’s early death from heart and liver failure, caused by a lifetime of drink and drugs abuse.
Lanie Robertson’s terrific musical play begins as a cabaret performance that sees McDonald’s Holiday stand in a single spotlight, and, between numbers, blurt out details of her troubled life.
And it’s a heartbreaking story. Born in Philly in 1915 to a teenage mother who abandoned her to abusive relatives, the young Billy was institutionalised at nine and raped at ten while her mother, who she called The Duchess, worked in a brothel.
She was discovered at 18 and began making a name for herself in jazz clubs and with bandleaders like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman.
But her first husband got her hooked on opium and, later, trumpeter Joe Guy added heroin to the mix, on top of an increasing over-reliance on alcohol.
Billie endured horrific racism, segregation on tour, police abuse and jail terms, before dying aged just 44.
We watch Holiday’s behaviour swing wildly from playfulness to hostility and hear rambling reminiscences and shocking admissions about her childhood that stun the audience into total silence.
She is brutally frank and, although her eyes are full of pain, the singer refuses to think of herself as a victim.
McDonald’s performance in Lady Day won her a Tony in America and it is clear to see why. Not only does she deliver a remarkable dramatic performance but her natural soprano voice is transformed to become a deep contralto.
Holiday’s vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo and the star gives a stunning interpretation.
Backed by a talented three-piece band – Musical director Shelton Becton on piano, Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass – we hear some of Holiday’s classic hits including God Bless The Child, Strange Fruit, Gimme A Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer and T’Aint Nobody’s Business If I Do.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is painful, unbelievably moving and harrowing to watch but director Lonny Price has created a masterpiece that showcases the formidable talent of Audra McDonald.
Playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until September 9.
- Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Audra McDonald gives a career-defining performance as tragic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.