There have been many tribute shows to Billie Holiday but it is unlikely audiences will ever see such a touching and memorable interpretation as McDonald’s.
Reprising her Tony Award-winning role as Billie Holiday in the musical drama ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,’ Broadway superstar Audra McDonald makes her much anticipated West End debut.
It’s 1959 and jazz legend Billie Holiday is playing a small bar in Philadelphia. Her fractured voice matches a fragile body that is falling apart after years of alcohol and drug abuse, and at only 44 it will be one of her last performances ever. As she gets progressively drunk throughout the evening Holiday unravels about her trial and convictions for drug possession, her turbulent personal life, and the racism she has faced throughout her career.
Holiday was revered in her lifetime for her ground-breaking vocal style that turned jazz standards into searching and compelling vignette’s of troubled living and loving, and the recordings she left behind are a reminder of her unique legacy. Audra McDonald is a classically trained powerful soprano but she expertly uses her sensitive musicianship to scale down her voice and capture the distinctive phrasing and poignant vulnerability of Holiday’s vocals. McDonald sounds remarkably like the jazz singer but her performance is more of a transformation than a mere impersonation, and she seems to embody the body and soul of her disintegrating protagonist. She sings ‘God Bless the Child’ with quiet intuition, and wails ‘Strange Fruit’ about the lynching of African Americans with dreadful realisation. The script by Lanie Robertson exhaustingly focuses on the woes of it’s principal character making the 90 minute show seem a lot longer than it is. In the hands of a lesser talent it is easy to see how this piece could become a relentless Whinge-Fest, but thankfully with McDonald in the helm the show steers away from this pitfall. The set by Christopher Oram perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of a seedy night club, and is complimented by Mark Henderson’s imaginative lighting design.
Review by Oliver Valentine.
Tickets from £16 here http://www.theatreperform.entstix.com/tickets/lady-day
‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’ is booking until 9th September, 2017. www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk Box office:0344 482 5137. WYNDHAMS THEATRE, Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0DA, London.