THERE can be few more commanding and dynamic performances in the West End than that currently being delivered by Audra McDonald.
From the moment she weaves (staggers) on to the stage at Wyndham’s Theatre, she captivates and enthrals the audience as Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
It is a gut-wrenching, heart breaking performance that will leave you breathless and marvel at the talent that pours from every pore of McDonald. Acting that won her a Tony Award on Broadway in 2014 and surely will win her more trophies and accolades in the months ahead.
She plays a tipsy (drugged up) Holiday as if she herself has been drinking back stage. She staggers and swaggers her way through the 90 minutes, delivering an array of Holiday hits with aplomb while recalling chunks of the singer’s tragic life story. It is as if Holiday, who died from heart and liver failure at the tender age of 44, has been reincarnated for the evening. Breath-taking. Extraordinary. Unmissable.
The play is written by Lanie Robertson and is based on a tale told to him by a friend who saw Holiday perform in a dive in North Philadelphia some three months before her death. She drank her way through the performance, introducing her pet Chihuahua Pepi to an audience of just seven, before staggering off.
Robertson uses this recollection as a vehicle for McDonald to reel off a string of Holiday hits – opening with I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone, pinnacling with a spellbinding rendition of protest song Strange Fruit and ending with Deep Song. She also sings Baby Doll by Bessie Smith, someone Holiday worshipped and whose voice she first heard as a teenager while in a brothel where her mother worked as a prostitute.
But winningly Robertson also uses the dive’s setting for McDonald to take us through Holiday’s tumultuous life – a life that explains why she turned to the bottle and drugs and ultimately self-destructed (for Holiday, read Edith Piaf, Whitney Houston, George Michael, Amy Whitehouse et al). It makes you angry and mad as her life story unfurls.
Mother Sadie was a teenager when she gave birth to Holiday and brought her up on her own (Holiday’s father Clarence Holiday was a jazz musician).
Holiday was raped at the age of 10, was introduced to opium by her first husband James Monroe (she was already a borderline alcoholic at that stage) and jailed for possession of narcotics in the late 1940s. She made her final appearance in New York in late May 1959, dying less than two months later.
The show also highlights the racism that Holiday faced throughout her life – for example being refused the use of a hotel bathroom because of her colour, a moment that meant she had to urinate on the floor and over the shoes of a waitress.
McDonald is unquestionably the star of this show. She puts her heart and soul into every moment and song – and leaves the audience exhausted and exhilarated. How she will keep going until 9 September I do not know. An exemplary voice. Close your eyes and you will think you are listening to a Holiday record. Maybe you could argue that you would wish to hear ‘Holiday’ without the slurring but that is to miss the point of the musical (a phalanx of Holiday CDs are available on Amazon for those who like Holiday pure).
Yet McDonald is helped by great support. On stage by Shelton Becton who plays Jimmy Powers, a pianist who Holiday flirts with throughout. Without saying more than a dozen words, Jimmy tries to coax Holiday through her performance despite the creeping effect on her of the cocktail of booze and drugs that she is absorbing. It is an understated role that Becton delivers expertly. He also leads the band (Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass) with a quiet effectiveness.
The musical is also imaginatively staged with members of the audience on stage to give the feel of a dive. It allows McDonald to (amusingly) interact with them although the proliferation of jeans and suits hardly perpetuates the feel of a 1950’s Philadelphian dive.
Last but not least, Tilly is impeccably behaved as Pepi the Chihuahua who is fleetingly brought on stage by McDonald’s Holiday after flouncing off to mainline some heroin.
Tickets for this show do not come cheap, especially if you want to sit around a table on stage and be on parade (I can’t think of anything worse to do while watching live theatre).
But if you can grab one (Time Out occasionally do special deals for those like me who are happy to sit up in the Gods), you will not be disappointed.
McDonald is a sensation, a fact I am sure Holiday would acknowledge if she were in a position to judge.
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Lady Day – 5/5
Director: Lonny Price
Billie Holiday: Audra McDonald
Jimmy Powers: Shelton Becton