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article imageLady Day, the Billie Holiday play in London Special

By Tim Sandle     Jul 2, 2017 in Entertainment
London - Audra McDonald delivers a captivating performance as Billie Holiday in the play-come-musical 'Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill', which has recently opened in London's West End.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a play with music by Lanie Robertson. The play is set in a small nightclub in Philadelphia in March 1959, just four short months before the death of Billie Holiday. The play recounts the last days of the jazz singer as she reminisces about her troubled life and struggles with her addiction to alcohol and drugs. Gripping monologues are interspersed with musical numbers.
Supported by a tight jazz music trio, the performance centers on the singer-and-actor Audra McDonald who delivers some impressive acting and a singing voice that is pitch perfectly close to Holiday's. Audra McDonald, who normally sings in soprano, has appeared on the stage in both musicals and dramas such as Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun and Porgy and Bess. As an actor she also featured as Dr. Naomi Bennett on the ABC television drama Private Practice. It's easy to see why she is a Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award-winning star.
Press photo for the  Lady Day  production in London  from June 2017.
Press photo for the 'Lady Day' production in London, from June 2017.
LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL
A selection of songs from the production:
The play is also enhanced by the set. Some audience members get to sit on stage in the nightclub setting; others are close to the stage, sitting on small tables, with the main theater seating set slightly back. As the theater goers enter to take their seats, the band play, bridging the usual shuffling to the seats and unwrapping candy wrappers with the start of the performance. It is only when the lights dim that the separation between 'warm up' swing and the start of the performance is closed. It's a clever trick.
A shot of the stage for the  Lady Day  production  recreating a nightclub from the 1950s.
A shot of the stage for the 'Lady Day' production, recreating a nightclub from the 1950s.
The band are tight: drummer Frankie Tontoh, bass player Neville Malcolm, and the play’s Musical Director, Shelton Becton, on piano. Becton also plays a role in the play, as Jimmy Powers, Billie Holiday's then manager.
Theatre ticket for the  Lady Day  play in London.
Theatre ticket for the 'Lady Day' play in London.
The interspersion of acting with singing is also very good. Most numbers are sunbg to completion, a few though are begun and abandoned. Often McDonald totters around in a white fishtail gown, glugging vodka from a pint glass, sometimes interacting with the audience. Her tales of as Holiday reveal the racism of the U.S. during the 1930s to the end of the 1950s; the character's dalliances with the criminal world and the sometimes hopelessness of addiction. At times it isn't easy to listen.
Some 15 of Holiday's signature songs are featured. The central performances are of God Bless the Child (written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr., which details Holiday's often fraught relationship with her mother); and Strange Fruit, the song about a horrific lynching.
With these songs, McDonald's voice fuels the action. It is an act of more than mimicry, it highlights the life of the troubled singer and the context of the U.S. throughout Holiday's life. Remarkable, 5 out of 5. The play is running at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London until September 9, 2017.
A picture from the bar area at Wyndhma s Theatre in June 2017.
A picture from the bar area at Wyndhma's Theatre in June 2017.
More about Audra McDonald, Billie Holiday, Musical, Play, Theatre
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