TV Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

“I want my own club, some place where I can sing for all my friends. What else is there?”

London audiences will have to wait a little while longer to see Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill live, after its run at the Wyndham’s had to be postponed after Audra McDonald’s pleasant surprise discovery of her pregnancy. But if you’re impatient, then you can find a filmed version of the show on HBO, allowing you to get a glimpse of the performance of Billie Holiday that garnered McDonald her record-breaking sixth Tony and completing the clean sweep of all four acting categories.

If you were in the category of Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play with her, you might have felt a little aggrieved as Lanie Robertson’s writing falls squarely into the play with songs category – snatches of bio-drama interspersed with a nightclub set of the many of the tracks that made Holiday the legendary jazz performer that she was. Which when you’ve got one of the premier musical theatre actresses in the world on hand, puts you at something of a disadvantage!

But the vagaries of award categorisation aside, it is an absolutely stunning performance which was well worth the plaudits and which stands up well on screen. Set a mere four month before Holiday’s death. the show is set in a fictional Philadelphia jazz club – a city she was most ambivalent about – where she struggles to get through the night without her dual demons of alcohol and drugs laying her low. Filmed at the Cafe Brasil in New Orleans, McDonald’s Lady Day staggers on and off-stage, wandering among her audience, high as a kite, lonely as a cloud.

It’s a remarkable physical turn from McDonald as much as a musical one – from the relative stability of the show’s opening to the traumatic state of intoxication in which she ends up, there’s no hiding the increasing roughness and sloppiness that takes the singer over, to the point of near-unintelligibility in her speech. Which is some cases isn’t the worst thing as Robertson’s script is probably the weakest element of the show, a series of Wikipedia soundbites from Holiday’s life, shoehorned into her patter in unlikely ways.

That said, there’s no denying the power of her stories, the depth of the pain that drove her to seek such poisonous respite and in McDonald’s handling, they’re tales that are demanded to be heard, especially as they lead into scorching, impassioned versions of songs like ‘Strange Fruit’, ‘God Bless The Child’ and ‘Don’t Explain’, her natural ebullience dulled into something gutsier, more gravelly. Lonny Price’s screen direction could usefully be a little calmer, the choppy selection of shots work against the show’s intensity (a reminder that it’s hard to replicate a stage success thus) but I reckon it’s worth checking out Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill now as who knows how long it’ll be before we’re blessed with the real thing.

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