Review of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Good things come to those that wait... and wait. 23 years on from her first Tony Award - won for a role in a production that actually originated at London's National Theatre when she starred in the Broadway transfer of Nicholas Hytner's Carousel in 1994 - Audra McDonald is finally making her official West End debut. In the intervening years, she's won a record run of five more Tony's in every performance category (both leading and featured performer) in both plays and musicals, the most of any performer in history.
And now London is seeing her belatedly reprising the latest of these award-winning turns, playing the title role in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill for which she won the 2014 Tony for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play. (She was originally due to do so last summer, but had to postpone when she unexpectedly fell pregnant and became a mother for a second time, at the age of 46).
Lady Day, of course, is Billie Holiday, the blues jazz legend, whom Lanie Robertson's musical play finds performing in a down-at-heel South Philadelphia club in 1959, the last year of her life before she died at the age of just 44. With the front six rows of the Wyndham's stalls removed and replaced by a collection of cabaret tables that also occupy the sides of Christopher Oram's moodily atmospheric set, and an onstage three-piece band led by musical director Shelton Becton, there's a close-up and raw intimacy to seeing one great artist impersonating another so vividly.
In fact, impersonation isn't quite right; this is more like a transfixing act of total transformation. McDonald - who is blessed, I believe, with the greatest voice of any artist to be born in my lifetime - actually (and perhaps disappointingly for her fans) doesn't sound like the Audra we know and love at all. Instead, she embodies Holiday in all her ravaged, rather than ravishing, tones.
Its an act of selfless immersion. But more than that, McDonald has always been a spellbinding actress, too - and so it proves as she utterly becomes Day, stumbling through a set of some of her great numbers - including her co-written versions of God Bless the Child, Somebody's on My Mind and Don't Explain, as well as Strange Fruit and Bessie Smith's Baby Doll, as she also relates stories from backstage and banters with her band.
It is not, to be honest, a great play; but it is a great vehicle. And for an hour and a half, we are held spellbound by the intensity of its telling.