Glamorous black and white photographs of a jazz singer with bright white gardenias in her hair – that’s what so easily springs to mind at the mention of Billie Holiday; flowers practically covering one side of her head. It is almost a stock image, but in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, those blooms don’t make so much as an appearance until well towards the end: a tragic crown for a rapidly fading star.
Set in the year of Holiday’s death, 1959, this musically infused play transports the audience to a run down joint in Philadelphia, with a portion of the audience lounging at cozy cabaret tables both up onstage and in the front section of what would normally be the stalls. Emerson’s represents the only sort of bar the singer was permitted to perform in towards the end of her life, owing to ongoing battles with drink and drugs that meant she was refused the requisite permit to perform in New York’s main clubs. And so with the help of just a pianist, bassist and drummer for a band, cooped up on a crowded stage, the great ‘Lady Day’ tells the tales of her life, interspersed with her most famous songs.
Written in 1986 by Lanie Robertson, this production was a hit on Broadway and has finally made it to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End after a slight delay whilst its star, Audra Macdonald, had her second (and rather unexpected) child. It was well worth the wait. Macdonald holds the most Tony awards of any performer, one of her six being for this turn, where we are treated not to the gorgeous operatic soprano so distinctive from hearing her in Porgy and Bess, or indeed the recent Disney live action smash Beauty and the Beast, but to what one would have presumed to be the inimitable sounds of Billie Holiday. Inspired in part by Louis ‘Pop’s’ Armstrong (as she called him) and Bessie Smith, Holiday’s sound was more like one of the instruments in a jazz band (a trombone with a sympathetic vibrato, for instance) and it is immediately recognisable – even when coming from Macdonald, whose impersonation is uncanny.
What is not so familiar is the stooped figure that tries to slink but ends up lolloping onto stage via a side door, stumbling and swaying along the way. The demise is not what tends to endure in our memory of legends, yet this show pivots on it. Thus, Macdonald’s painfully faithful performance gives us the good (the singing), the bad (the vicious spats with her pianist), and the ugly (the marks of heroin abuse on her arm visible after an impromptu time-out backstage after which she reappears with her pet Chihuahua). And it is precisely this rawness throughout the production that has such a flabbergasting effect, saddening as it is to dwell on Holliday’s afflictions.
Nonetheless, Macdonald’s ‘Lady’ has a wicked knack for story telling, a deep tobacco drawl half laughing at moments from the past, half sighing them away. Flashes of blithe acerbity tend to be followed by starry-eyed pauses of drunken reflection, when you feel as though you, in the audience, must be imposing on a private thought. We hear about her childhood, her mother, yet another rogue romance, including the one that got her to take the fall for drug possession that got her sent to prison. We are even told stories about the bittersweet time she toured with big band leader Artie Shaw and, as a black woman touring with a white band, was forced to use service entrances and refused so much as the use of a loo in some establishments. She laughs until her cackle almost turns into a cry and then, ever the performer, she picks herself up and slurs into the next song, gin in hand.
Those songs include the famous “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”, a thoughtful rendition of “God Bless The Child”, and a powerfully incensed “Strange Fruit”. When she sings, everything seems to come together and, amidst the sorrow, you sense the joy derived from singing, from performing, from toying with the audience, so keeping her going even in the darkest days. When she finally remembers the gardenias she normally can’t sing without, we witness a beautiful transformation from the morose to the sparkling. And like this, Macdonald gives us a star, which just so happens to be a bit tarnished; there may be something a bit uncomfortable about watching it fade yet further before our very eyes, but still our 90 minutes with her – straight through like a steamer – are entirely engrossing.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at Wyndham’s Theatre until the 9th September 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website.