Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 9 September 2017
Audra McDonald doesn’t just perform as Billie Holiday, she completely immerses herself in the character in Lonny Price’s elegant but ultimately tragic production. Billie Holiday is remembered for her distinctive voice as much as her troubled personal life and this engrossing and sophisticated production really brings out her personality and story in a stylish way.
With Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Lanie Robertson brings her story to life in the best possible way by telling it from Holiday’s point of view, using the audience to create the vibe of a counselling session in which she gets to give voice to her regrets, pain and anger. All of the stories that Robertson has included in the play show just how complicated as a person the jazz singer was.
But it is clear from the beginning that Billie Holiday was a force of nature, strong minded and never taking any nonsense, becoming increasingly clear as Robertson builds up the tension as the singer gradually loses control in front of the audience’s eyes – getting more and more difficult to watch.
Thanks to Christopher Oram’s gorgeous set, despite the size of the theatre this really feels like an intimate performance, which allows the audience to completely immerse themselves in the show and the music. Along with the Mark Henderson’s soft and atmospheric lighting, the audience can completely believe that they are back in the 1950’s watching Billie Holiday performing.
What lifts this production to another level is Audra McDonald’s extraordinary performance as Billie Holiday, her mannerisms and sharp humoured performance delivered with wonderful warm and textured vocals making this a performance not to be missed. The contrast from the melancholy of her musical performances contrasting nicely with the way in which she uses humour to mask the singer’s real feelings makes this a performance not to be missed.
But credit must also be given to the onstage musicians, who deliver charismatic musical performances that really set the mood and scene effectively, providing great support to Audra McDonald’s performance.
Lonny Price’s production is deeply moving and sad but it also celebrates the talent of one of the greatest jazz singers of all time in a graceful and respectful way that captures the attention of the audience and captivates them from beginning to end. Some of the stories might meander at times, but overall it is a sharp and focused production that sparkles with class.
A lady sitting next to me was completely mesmerised and delighted by the production, explaining to me afterwards that she was fortunate enough to have seen Holiday live and how this production was completely like her original experience of the singer. If that isn’t a testimony to the power of both Audra McDonald and Lonny Price’s production I don’t know what is.