Review: Lady Day At Emerson's

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill, a new play about Billie Holiday now at Wyndham's Theatre, is a five-star gasser, according to Leon Nock

Readers who live within striking distance of the centre of London could do much worse than presenting themselves at the Wyndham’s Theatre box office between now and 9 September.

I'd say 90% of jazz fans are admirers of Billie Holiday and it follows as hangover follows pub crawl that the UK chapter of the BH Fan Club will want to see Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill. As I write, the show has just opened for a nine and one half week season at Wyndham’s Theatre, WC2.

Let me say right off that we’re talking five-star gasser here. There are four people on stage for the 90-minute (sans intermission) running time, three (presumably) drawing scale and one, if there is any justice in this world, pulling down a whole lotta nines.

Audra McDonald (pictured right) – who is Billie Holiday in the way that Marion Cotillard was Edith Piaf - has already copped a Tony for her take on Lady Day on Broadway and even Stevie Wonder could see why; for this is a performance, nay, an experience, that drew a more than merited standing ovation from an audience that ranged from late teens to mid octogenarian.

Often overlooked in these type of shows focused on stars, the musicians deserve recognition (and this is a jazz mag). They are those staples of the London scene Neville Malcolm (bass), Frank Tontoh (drums) and Shelton Becton (piano) the latter also serving as musical director.

McDonald performs 15 numbers associated with Holiday, either in full or in part but she spends an equal amount of time talking directly to the audience – some of whom are within touching distance of her - and, realistically, has the occasional brief exchange with MD Becton. The theatre is laid out like a night club with tables onstage and where the first six rows of the stalls would be.

We get a biography of Holiday which is warts and all: at one point she leaves the stage briefly and returns with her left elbow-length glove rolled down to the wrist and it’s possible there were those in the audience who didn’t realise Holiday had been shooting up.

I cannot speak too highly of this play and especially of Audra McDonald and I urge everyone reading this who can to get to Wyndham’s Theatre between now and 9 September. You’ll thank me, trust me.

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