Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill starring Audra McDonald – review at Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Audra McDonald is a performer of great vocal prowess and precision. A six-time Tony-winner, she has a rich, operatic voice, and in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – for which she won one of those Tonys – she delivers an accomplished impersonation of Billie Holiday, an act of more than mimicry.
It’s a performance of immense technical skill, if at times one that feels slightly mechanical and uncanny, and it propels a production that can feel formulaic and even a little ghoulish.
Lanie Robertson’s show, directed by Lonny Price, and first produced Off Broadway in 1986, takes the form of a selection of songs from Holiday’s repertoire interspersed with digressions about her life on tour and her beloved mother, whom she called the Duchess.
McDonald, clad in a flowing white dress, arms hidden by conveniently long sleeves, is backed by a trio of excellent musicians – but essentially this is a one-woman show.
It’s set in 1959, right at the end of Holiday’s short life – she would die later that year at the age of 44. By this stage she’s diminished by her addictions, a shadow of herself, and people have started calling her Lady Yesterday.
Christopher Oram has transformed Wyndham’s into a Philadelphia jazz club, with audience members seated on stage and further cabaret-style tables in the stalls. McDonald occasionally interacts with the audience between renditions of What a Little Moonlight Can Do and God Bless the Child. She reminisces about bandleader Artie Shaw and talks warmly about her musical heroes, while dropping in casual remarks about her rape as a child.
As she sloshes back tumblers of gin, these autobiographical interludes become increasingly incoherent. She stumbles about the stage, slurs her speech, and loses track of the song she is supposed to be singing. McDonald’s unravelling, her confusion and aggression, is played with commitment and passion but there’s an acute absence of pathos – it’s far too grand a collapse. Even the inclusion of a cute dog can’t stop it from feeling a little voyeuristic.
What saves this from feeling like an exercise in rubbernecking is the power of McDonald’s voice and the way she conveys Holiday’s mixture of strength and fragility, her china plate grace. There’s rawness and anger here too, a reminder of how appallingly she was treated. She would be booked to perform and then not even allowed to use the bathroom. She was adored for her voice and yet denied it.
Strange Fruit, that extraordinary song of protest and pain, sill has the power to haunt and disturb – even in a simulacra of a jazz club in the plush West End. The fact that such a song should ever have to exist still stings.