Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Review Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill (Preview)

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill
A Musical Play
by Lanie Robertson

Keeping On Track

It was another day - or rather midnight - at the office for the guest spot jazz singer in a small nightclub in South Philadelphia. Except the singer was Philly-born jazz legend Billie Holiday and, in March 1959, she only had a few months to live.

Introduced by her business manager and pianist Jimmy Powers, Audra McDonald as Billie takes to the small stage surrounded by drinking customers sitting at the small round tables scattered around the room.

And then below the glitterball shade dangling from the ceiling, the Lady starts to talk - and sing.

This is a portrayal of Billie at the end of her life, indominatable but failing, fighting against vicious discrimination but beaten down by outside and personal demons.

The songs break through the sometimes lucid, sometimes incoherent and rambling in-between patter from which emerges the story of a life. 

Classically trained McDonald suppresses the naturally luscious richness of her voice and with technical precision nails Holiday's heartbreaking distinctive phrasing. 

At this point Holiday was a released jailbird, taking the fall for a feckless husband whom she nevertheless loves and pities. However, as an ex-con, she was now without the prized cabaret card that would allow her to sing in Harlem nightclubs.

On stage with her, Shelton Becton as Powers interjects when absolutely necessary, cajoling to make sure she gets to the end of her set, singing the songs the punters expect from her. 

But it also brings a realisation that breaking into the well-honed rountine of songs also keeps Holiday on track when the often justifiable fury and despair over a ruined life spills over.

For the glamorous off-the-shoulder gleaming white cabaret gown and long white gloves, we later learn, also hide the tell-tale tracks of heroin addiction needle injections. 

Lanie Robertson's play has been around since 1986 dong the rounds of American regional theatre and it may seem ironic that six-time Tony award winner McDonald now sprinkles Broadway stardust on the tawdry last few months of Holiday's life.

But the beauty and precision of the impersonation also wins us over. In addition to this uncanny performance, the life and sorry death of, among others, Amy Winehouse in the media spotlight serve to remind us these ravages aren't mere history and past cliché. 

Robertson's script is well-structured, allowing for Holiday's anger and resignation to emerge, although, perhaps by necessity in the 90 minute show,  it feels at times a tad expositional. 

But it's the evocation of Holiday's voice we come  to hear and which gives the breath-catching moments. There's unbearable poignancy too in a bruised life conveyed though bitter and wicked humour.

Holiday's evident decline as she stumbles over spoken words transmutes into heartrending, stirringly defiant renditions accompanied by Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass, as well as Becton on piano.

There's God Bless The Child addressed to her mother, "The Duchess",  T'Aint Nobody's Business If I Do addressed to us all, Don't Explain addressed to an errant husband and Strange Fruit againt lynching in the American south.  

While not mentioned in the show, it's instructive that Emerson's Bar appeared in The Negro Motorist Green Book. This guide, published for 30 years from 1936 during the Jim Crow era in the southern states of America and de facto segregation in the north, listed services and establishments relatively friendly to African Americans.  When Holiday toasts the bar owner in the show, it has an added meaning.

This is a solid play directed by Lonny Price lifted by an exceptionally moving and technically breathtaking performance by McDonald and it's a green light.   

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