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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a breathtaking theatrical experience

Audra McDonald and Shelton Becton in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill - Credit Marc Brenner
Audra McDonald and Shelton Becton in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – Credit Marc Brenner

An on-stage band plays as the audience continues to file in for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The décor of the stage is not that far removed from the ornateness of the interior of the rest of the Wyndham’s Theatre auditorium. The audience is being transported back to a time when even in a setting as informal as a bar and grill, the band players wore sharp suits and looked utterly dapper.

Should anyone be interested in observing attire at work then and now, if the opportunity should ever arise, observe the clothes worn by detectives in any given episode of the 1968-80 run of Hawaii Five-O, and the ones worn in the 2010-present series. The contrast is noticeable, and one is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other – it is merely different.

With that in mind, there are bound to be naysayers who will, if they have not done so already, declare this production, set in 1959, ‘dated’. That is, of course, rather like saying Shakespeare’s Hamlet is dated.

I must admit that my prior knowledge of Billie Holiday (Audra McDonald) was rather sketchy before seeing this production, so this proved educational as well as enjoyable. But ‘enjoyable’ is stretching it as a term to summarise this experience. I do not mean the show is without pleasure. Holiday shows increasing signs of distress as the evening goes on, and though she denies any problems, she does so in a way that a person under the influence of alcohol may attempt to sound sober by over-enunciating their words, thus paradoxically amplifying their current state. It’s a tad painful to watch such a talent struggle in the way that she does.

It’s a laidback and mellow sort of jazz that dominates the musical numbers, a very different style of music to that found elsewhere in the West End. Occasionally, Holiday decides she wants a change of tempo, and we’re treated, however briefly, to a jauntier tune. Either way, it’s so far removed from musical theatre that the show’s programme describes this as a play rather than a musical. On balance, I am inclined to agree. It’s a stand-and-deliver performance, with a narrative spun out by way of anecdotes and stories rather than choreographed numbers with lyrics that are themselves part of the plotline.

I should imagine the on-stage seating is quite a unique experience, for those who don’t mind having a view of several hundred people looking back in their general direction. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it, as my own ‘traditional’ vantage point from the rear stalls provided a much better view of proceedings. I would have thought the front stalls, where a number of tables have been laid out, restaurant style, is an even better place to sit.

The lighting (Mark Henderson) helps to create the atmosphere of an intimate venue in this prominent West End proscenium arch theatre. The sense of humour is often cutting, sometimes dry, and always very observational. We’ve moved on from the 1950s in some ways – black women, or ‘colored’ as the term was in those days, are welcome to use any female conveniences they wish. But when Holiday observes that she as far as she can tell, no black people work for the US government, she was talking about the Eisenhower administration. In 2017, the current one has come under fire for not having diversity reflective of the country it is in charge of: room for improvement remains the largest room in the world.

I cannot vouch for the authenticity of every story in this play, and as ever, others involved in the various scenarios may have seen what Holiday describes from a very different perspective. What I can say is that for ninety solid minutes, this intense and compelling production really does transport its audiences to seeing Billie Holiday as she would have been in her dying months. Triumphant yet tragic, this is a breathtaking theatrical experience.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald makes her West End debut as legendary jazz icon, Billie Holiday.

Spend an intimate evening filled with some of the most inspiring and moving songs ever written and hear the personal stories of Holiday’s loves and losses through a turbulent but extraordinary life.

With a glorious score featuring God Bless the Child, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Strange Fruit, Crazy He Calls Me and Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness you’d better pull up a chair and order a drink because this legend’s got a life to sing.

Audra McDonald, a Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award-winner, is one of Broadway’s biggest stars and holds the record for Tony-winning performances including her Best Actress winning performance for LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL.

This strictly limited season runs for 12 weeks only from 17th June – 9th September.

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL
Booking Period: 17th June – 9 September 2017

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