Review: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’ at Wyndham’s Theatre

By John Buckley on 31 August 2017
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LONDON—The legendary Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan and nicknamed Lady Day by her friend, musician Lester Young, had in her short 44 years a major influence on jazz and pop music. Another legend, Audra McDonald, who holds the record for the most Tony Awards (six), portrays Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which crossed the pond from Broadway to the West End for a limited engagement.

The show reenacts a single night at a smoky nightclub, Emerson’s Bar and Grill, shortly before Holiday’s death in July 1959. McDonald’s performance is the embodiment of Holiday, high on booze and drugs, barely coherent, staggering and slurring her way through stories about her life. When she sings, McDonald makes Holiday come alive.

When the play first opened Off Broadway in 1986, the director, Andre Ernotte, said in an interview that he wanted to deglamorize Billie and “show the dark, sad side.” The play opened on Broadway with McDonald pouring her heart out in the starring role in 2014. It’s even better in its West End incarnation, following a brief hiatus during which McDonald had a baby and they may as well start now to engrave her name on an Olivier Award, London’s highest theater honor.

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Not surprisingly, Audra received an immediate standing ovation once the lights went dark, a much rarer occurrence here in London than on Broadway.

Indeed, Lonny Price, the director, and Audra McDonald are a team to be reckoned with and I hope they continue to make exhilarating stage work together. They have managed to bring Billie Holiday back from the dead. It’s important to note that the production is considered a play with music rather than a musical, because the music is just Holidays songs, while the story is a reenactment of a performance Holiday gave in Philadelphia a few months before her death.

Shelton Becton, who portrayed Jimmy Powers, Billie’s accompanist and right hand man on Broadway, also moved with the production over to London. No doubt Becton was hired for his musical expertise, but his acting chops have come a long way from what I remember seeing in New York. The chemistry between the two last week was one of the most honest connections two actors have ever made on a stage, and I truly had the feeling we were watching Billie Holiday in the flesh.

Whatever your plans are for the next two weeks, no matter where you are in the world, if you love theatre, get in a car, train, or plane and go to London to see “Lady Day” (that is if you can get your hands on a ticket). I can only imagine it’s very unlikely McDonald will open the show again anywhere else. If London is out of the question, HBO recorded the performance on Broadway but the filmed version failed to capture the brilliance of what audiences got to experience in the theater as well as the intimacy of the cabaret setting.

THE DETAILS

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0DA
Runtime: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission
www.ladydaywestend.com
Limited enagement through September 9, 2017

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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