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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Grill
Wyndham's Theatre  Summer 2017

Elvis sings Sinatra.

Imagine that for a moment. One great singer suppresses his own style and uses his skill and talent to imitate the sound and mode of another. That is sort of what you get here. 

Audra McDonald is an unquestioned Broadway musical star, with almost as many Tonys as she's had roles. Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was a great blues and jazz stylist.

In the context of a script by Lanie Robertson, McDonald sings fifteen songs just as Holiday would have. And as impressive as the technical accomplishment is, one can't escape the niggling question Why? 

Wouldn't at least a part of us rather hear recordings of the real Holiday and listen to McDonald singing as herself? 

There is more to the 80-minute evening than the vocal impersonation. Lanie Robertson imagines Holiday performing at a small nightclub a few months before her death. 

Alcoholic and heroin-addicted, she punctuates her songs with typical singer's chat that grows progressively more rambling and self-exposing as she goes on. 

The first few rows of the Wyndham's Theatre stalls have been replaced by nightclub-style tables, with more onstage, and McDonald's Holiday begins with some witty interplay with the audience, moving on to memories and anecdotes of growing up in segregated Baltimore, of discovering the joy of singing, and of generally unsuccessful romances and marriages. 

Whenever she threatens to wander too far afield, her pianist (played by musical director Shelton Becton) tries to bring her back with the musical cues to her next song, not always successfully. 

The tension between the two can produce some striking effects, as when she balks at singing her one big hit God Bless The Child yet again just because the audience expects it, and when an overlong but hilariously scatological story of encountering a racist segues abruptly and powerfully into the controlled rage of Strange Fruit, her self-written song about lynchings. 

Inevitably the arc of the script has Holiday moving ever closer to drunken and stoned incoherence, though still able to sing with power, soul and technical brilliance. 

For those who have never heard (or heard of) Billie Holiday and can't be bothered to find her recordings, this can be a valuable and enlightening introduction. I can't help preferring listening to Holiday sing Holiday and McDonald sing as McDonald.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Geill - Wyndham's Theatre 2017