BWW Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL, Wyndham's Theatre
One American great inhabits another in this superior cabaret, as the Broadway legend Audra McDonald slips into the skin - and unforgettable voice - of jazz icon Billie Holiday. The emotional sensitivity makes it far more than just an immensely skilful impersonation, and makes McDonald's delayed West End debut well worth the wait.
The framing of Lanie Robertson's 1986 'musical play' isn't exactly elegant, with Holiday, unprompted, sharing every intimate secret of her life with this roomful of strangers in helpfully chronological order - from childhood rape and racist attacks while on tour in the Deep South to her rotten, heroin-pushing husband and drug arrest that wrecked her career.
Unable to perform in New York, and dubbed 'Lady Yesterday' by spiteful commentators, she's returned to "rat's ass" Philadelphia and the seedy environs of Emerson's Bar & Grill - well evoked by Christopher Oram, who seats some of the audience at cabaret tables on and close to the stage. It's here we join her, in 1959, just months before her death aged 44.
The concept of the tortured artist - destroyed as well as created by turbulent experience - is so often romanticised, and there are elements of that here, but McDonald (reprising her 2014 Tony-winning performance) is careful to play the unvarnished tragedy of it: the ugly drowning of this blazing talent in spirits. The transcendent "God Bless the Child", written for her beloved mother 'the Duchess', is swiftly followed by Holiday's sad, slurred accusations that her bandmates have moved her drink.
Awe and pity constantly jostle for space: that magnificent voice tearing at the soul, and then the hunched, tottering woman struggling to navigate stairs, or leaving a glove rolled down to show flesh ravaged by track marks. Yet Holiday argues forcefully that you can't excise formative experience, and her stubborn independence is almost admirable - except that addiction and ruin is hardly a choice.
Vocally, it's a spine-tingling match. McDonald captures Holiday's quavering vibrato decorating a velvety core of sound, the flirting with tempo, her swoops of pitch and yowling, yelping emphases - the singing equivalent of quirking an eyebrow or grabbing someone's hand mid-anecdote. The influence of Holiday's musical hero Louis Armstrong is apparent in the way her voice really does become an instrument.
Physically, too, it's a remarkable effort, from the slow head tilts matching musical phrasing to the ungainly but still charismatic Holiday outside of her songs: swearing with full-bodied delight, yet walking too carefully, as if carrying - rather than containing - a barrel of sloshing liquid that makes her lurch and roll.
But most striking is McDonald's emotional evocation; she, too, is a singer who can summon a wealth of feeling in a single note. There's twinkling-eyed mischief in "Moonlight" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" (a cover of another idol, Bessie Smith), the generation-defining cry of protest song "Strange Fruit", wryly knowing "When a Woman Loves a Man", and unabashed "T'aint Nobody's Business if I Do".
Though Robertson's piece is dramatically inert, it's crisply paced by Lonny Price, and McDonald invests the autobiographical patter with enough personality to sell that too - plus the addition of an adorable dog, adding to this summer's theatrical menagerie, certainly doesn't hurt.
McDonald underplays sections that might read as misery memoir, visibly swallowing her grief as she recalls the death of her father, and lends a jittery paranoia to Holiday's assertion that parole officers could be hiding out there in the gloom of the club. She also relishes the audience interaction - on the night I was there, improvising gamely as some poor bloke struggled to light her cigarette.
Shelton Becton is wonderfully considerate support as Holiday's accompanist and bandleader, with the similarly excellent Frankie Tontoh and Neville Malcolm on drums and bass respectively.
Bright and bitter, funny and devastating, and a complex valentine from one extraordinary artist to another, it's an unmissable musical treat.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill at Wyndham's Theatre until 9 September. Book tickets here from £16
Photo credit: Marc Brenner