Five-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald, a true Broadway goddess, plays Billie Holiday to perfection in a one woman monologue/concert that transports the audience to a recreation of the final concert given by one of the world’s greatest jazz singers.
Playwright Lanie Robertson penned this exquisite piece, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, which combines autobiography, singing and Roxie, who plays Holiday’s pet dog Pepi. Robertson was saddened by the way Holiday was treated in the last months of her life and, after hearing a recount from someone who had seen Holiday perform for the final time at a concert just months before she died, Robertson felt that one of our greatest artists had been so undervalued towards the end and she was inspired to write this piece.
Much thought and creative design has gone into transforming the Circle in the Square theatre where the audience is immediately transported to 1959, four months before Holiday died in a Harlem hospital from cirrhosis and heart failure. The small bar apparently still stands today on the corner of Fifteen and Bainbridge Streets, Philadelphia. Cabaret-style tables and chairs are arranged in the centre of the space, encircled by an art deco railing and a long curvy bar at the opposite end of the small stage. On the stage were the trio of musicians and they play enthusiastically as the audience enters.
Art deco light fittings hang over the chairs and tables and hanging over the circular stage was a burlesque-style canopy. Throughout the performance, large photos of Holiday’s most beloved people in her life are projected onto the back of the stage-actual photos of her mother, husband Sonny, Louis Armstrong amongst others. Also, one of Holiday’s dresses hung in quite a lonely yet at the same time spectacular way sidling next to an array of real musical instruments that created a perfect tableau of Holiday’s life treasures.
Roxie, an erstwhile stray dog was rescued from streets of New Orleans and now enjoys the bright lights of a Broadway stage and was one of the many delights on show.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a wonderful, sad and touching look into the life of a woman who was fiercely independent, very loving towards those in her very short life and who sang in the most distinctive way. Robertson serves up vignettes between songs depicting scenes that serve to show Holiday’s gutsy determination and the barriers that she faced in her life. One particularly distressing scene, which served to illustrate the prevalent racism of the time, was the tale where she was once informed by a maître d’ that because the restaurant did not normally allow ‘coloured folk’ inside to dine, there was no bathrooms for her to use. Holiday protested and in the end relieved herself all over the high heel shoes this female maître d’ was sporting.
McDonald is flanked by a trio of musicians as it would have been back in the day. Clayton Craddock (drums), George Farmer (Bass) and Shelton Becton (piano) drummed, plucked and twinkled their way through some of Holiday’s classics like “God Bless this Child”, “Strange Fruit” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” McDonald sings with the same intonation, timbre and expression as Holiday. Becton plays an important role as Jimmy Powers, who has dialogue throughout the play where he has to manage Holiday’s antics and call time when her ramblings become too controversial or long-winded. McDonald is amazing when her Holiday recalls happy moments in her life; McDonald chokes up and forces back tears. This is beautifully and sensitively done.
For a die-hard fan of Holiday, this is sheer bliss. For a person eager to find out more of this singer’s life and songs, it is a complete blast.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by Lanie Robertson
Circle in the Square, 51st Street, Broadway, NYC.
Reviewed on Saturday 19th 2014.