REVIEW: Lady Day "a theatrical triumph"
| By Shaun Nolan
Lady Day was originally slated to make its West End debut - along with McDonald making hers, too - last year. However, a surprise pregnancy rocked McDonald's world and alas, the show was cancelled. I cannot tell you how devastated I was at the thought of not getting to see McDonald in this play after all, but to my great joy, the show is here in the West End a year later and was well worth the long wait.
The play by Lanie Robertson is a remounted, edited version of a concert that a friend told him about, performed by Billie Holiday in a dive bar a few months before her death. When Robertson was told the story of how a noticeably high and drunk Holiday slurred her way through one of her final performances in such a low-brow establishment, hesaid that "[he] was haunted by the thought of a star falling so low in her final moments" and that Lady Day was "[his] way of ridding [himself] of those demons". The play starts before Holiday enters the stage and concludes 90 minutes later with the final song performed in her concert. The concept may sound boring, but it's crafted in a way that is so honest and affecting - while also being hilarious at certain moments, too - that you never want it to end.
Of course, Audra McDonald's starring role helps to make this play so enjoyable as well. I'll refrain from sounding like the No.1 fan that I am, but it's undeniable that McDonald is a tour de force in her performance as Billie Holiday. While I've longed to see her perform a role in a show since the first time I discovered her existence, I was genuinely concerned that her performance as Billie Holiday was one that was more low brow than her other roles. It is, however, evident to me now that there was good reason for McDonald to win her record-breaking sixth Tony Award for her performance here: she is so authentic and real in her performance that, after the "OMG that's Audra" effect passed over, I was completely convinced by her performance without a doubt. As I tweeted after the show: "I did not just watch Audra McDonald; I just saw Billie Holiday come back to life".
And while McDonald is the star of this show - and the only actor in the performance, too, except for Shelton Becton who musical directs, plays the piano and plays Jimmy Powers - there has been some fantastic work behind the scenes as well. Lonny Price directs this stunning piece, with the last of his work I saw being the sublime revival of Sunset Boulevard that ran at the London Coliseum last year and is now playing on Broadway. It takes real skill and precision to direct a re-staging of a concert - a one-woman show, too - in amongst a small set of a dive bar filled with audience members. It's an unusual setting, but Price leads McDonald around it beautifully in a vision that never feels stagnant or repetitive.
Set designer extraordinaire Christopher Oram, who is currently working on Frozen, has designed a stunning new set for this London production which heightens this play's immersive element. The dive bar feels like a proper, 1950s one with fantastic atmospheric lighting to match by Mark Henderson and it fills me with joy to look at it. It's one of those designs of a play that is so well crafted, you can feel the artistry radiating off of it as you watch the play; the atmosphere that they create - along with Emilio Sosa's costume design and J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene's wig and makeup work - is a character in and of itself.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill would be great even if McDonald wasn't at the helm, but with her star presence in the centre of it, the show is a theatrical triumph. Her star status exudes from her in a way that fits Billie Holiday perfectly and she gives one of the strongest performances of the season as a result. If you don't see Lady Day this summer, you're missing out. I, for one, am already excited to go back and see it the many more times that I have already planned.