Eleanora Fagan was just 44 when she died. Born in 1915, she was the great grandchild of a slave. Her mother had her when she just was a teenager and her father abandoned them both. She was regularly left in the care of relatives who abused her, and as a result suffered a difficult and unsafe childhood. This woman, who endured such a tough start in life, was better known as Billie Holiday, one of the most celebrated and gifted jazz musicians of her time. Now, 6-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald brings Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill to the West End, to tell us Billie’s story and sing us her songs.
Directed by Lonny Price and written by Lanie Robertson, this production is a tribute act, of sorts, to Lady Day herself. Over the course of the hour and thirty minutes running time, we see McDonald as Holiday, recounting tales of her youth, her rise to fame, and her fall into drug addiction and alcoholism with men who led her astray. With a set designed by Christopher Oram that spills into the stalls, the Wyndham’s theatre is transformed into a small bar in south Philadelphia. Adorned with little dark wooden tables and chairs, leather booths and low lighting, we are transported back to early 1959, just months before Holiday’s heart and liver failure, resulting in her death.
McDonald mimics Billie and her voice, whilst singing and speaking, and along with her mannerisms and language, she becomes eerily similar to the late singer. She recreates the emotion Holiday carried with her in her music with ease, but, as silly as it sounds – McDonald is obviously not Billie Holiday. Although McDonald’s voice cannot be faulted and she is a marvellous actress, Holiday was a once-in-a-lifetime talent and somewhat inimitable, and if you take the time to dwell on that, some sincerity and authenticity from the piece falls away.
McDonald is accompanied by live music played by a frankly fantastic band, comprised of Frankie Tontoh on drums, Neville Malcolm on bass and Shelton Becton as both pianist and Jimmy Powers – Holiday’s final partner. In heated moments between the pair, in which Holiday (obviously high and very drunk) becomes hostile towards Powers, the air in the theatre becomes thick with silence, until she breaks it again with a joke and a laugh.
Like her life, Lady Day is an emotionally turbulent play, where cheerful numbers like What a Little Moonlight Can Do and Gimmie a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer, contrast with more sombre pieces such as God Bless the Child and the famous Strange Fruit, which both held sentimental value to Holiday. Lady Day reveals more of Holiday than most of us already know, and tells the tale of the woman behind the singer/songwriter. Shedding light on her troubled life, hers is a story that deserves to be told.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until September 9.
Photo: Marc Brenner