LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL
a musical play by Lanie Robertson.
Wyndham’s Theatre., Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DA to 9 September.
Tues-Sat 7.45pm Mat Wed, Thu & Sat 2.45pm.
Runs 90 mins No interval.
TICKETS: 0844 482 5120.
Review: William Russell 28 June.
Ninety spellbinding heartbreaking minutes
If you can get an entire Saturday matinee audience on its feet at the end on a hot, muggy day in June you must have delivered something special, and that is what Audra McDonald, one of the current great Broadway divas making her West End debut, did. Standing ovations on first nights are suspect. The stalls are packed with friends of the producer and the cast and if they rise so does everyone else to see what is going on. But a matinee audience is another matter and this one leapt as one to acclaim her. McDonald has six Tony awards for musicals and straight acting roles and lives up to her reputation with a dazzling performance, which not all transatlantic great ladies necessarily do.
Lanie Robertson has devised a play about the great Billie Holiday performing towards the end of her career in a small cabaret bar in Philadelphia during which she interrupts the songs to talk to the audience about her life, about being coloured, about travelling with the likes of Artie Shaw and his band, her horrendous childhood – she was abused, worked in a brothel – drinks too much, talks about the men in her life, none of whom were any good, breaks down and flees the room, brings on her pet Chihuahua and squabbles with her pianist. Holiday, possibly the greatest jazz singer of all time, influenced many singers who followed her but her personal life proved a mess and it ended in drug related illnesses, prison sentences and liver failure.
The front few rows of the theatre have been removed and café tables installed for the audience to sit at, and there are more on stage also occupied by the audience. It is a gimmick often tried which usually does not work, but Christopher Oram’s set is so good that everything joins together beautifully and it places Holiday right where she belonged – in a club singing to an audience close by and not impeded by any footlights barrier. Most of her great songs are there from God Bless the Child to Strange Fruit. McDonald does not copy Holiday, she creates her own Holiday and the result is spellbinding.
The trio of musicians supporting her – Shelton Becton as her pianist Jimmy Powers trying to keep things going on as she gets ever more stressed, Franke Tontoh on drums and Nevile Malcolm on bass – is superb. This is a show that demands superlatives.
At one point she tell about touring with Shaw, being forced to eat in the kitchen of the hotel in West Virginia – niggers were not allowed in the public rooms – and needing to go to the lavatory. It is hilarious, beautifully delivered and utterly appalling. This is a West End debut to remember by an enthralling, remarkable performer at the height of her powers.
Billie Holiday: Audra McDonald.
Jimmy Powers: Shelton Becton.
Pianist: Shelton Becton.
Bass: Neville Malcolms.
Director: Lonny Price.
Set Designer: Christopher Oram.
Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa.
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson.
Sound Designer: Paul Groothuis.
Musical Arrangements & Orchestrations: Tim Weil.