By Jack Rico
I missed the opening week of the Broadway musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill which opened April 13, so once I heard the show was extending its limited performances until September 21st, I had to go see it. Apart from the record-setting Tony winning performance from Audra McDonald (she won her 6th Tony by beating Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris with 5 wins), my other main interest was to listen to Billie Holiday’s music within a Broadway setting, something I had never witnessed.
I deliberately didn’t read any reviews or search YouTube for video previews before the show so I could fully experience the memorable music, immerse myself in McDonald’s riveting performance and be able to feel I went back to the nightclub in Philadelphia that director Lonny Price had intended the audience to see.
Set in a bar in Philadelphia, the show recreates a night in 1959 when legendary blues singer Billie Holiday performed her classic hits in a smoky nightclub. The show recounts Holiday’s life story through the songs that made her famous, as she puts on a show that, unbeknownst to the audience, would be one of her lasts.
I attended with my wife and as soon as we walked in I was elated to see that the stage design by James Noone felt reminiscent of a real nightclub from the 50’s. How close it resembles to the real Emerson’s Bar & Grill from Philly is unknown to me. As the jazz band began playing some solos, I was expecting McDonald to strut out, and in her own mellifluous voice, predictably croon a playlist of Holiday songs in concert format for close to 2 hours. But au contraire, her normal voice was nowhere to be found, and in its place, was THE voice of Billie Holiday! My reaction to the first note out of McDonald’s mouth was of pure, uncensored bewilderment. My wife and I turned to each other simultaneously in disbelief with our jaws open, aghast at what we were hearing. Billie Holiday, ladies and gentlemen, was for all intents and purposes, in the house!
Part of the shock was seeing with my own eyes the flawless emulation. So many times I have heard musicians express, adamantly, that they do not want to emulate a historical figure because they want to bring something new to the performance. Not the case here. The reason I think it works, in my humble opinion, is because no one has physically been able to mimic Holiday’s unique voice with such complete and utter precision. It was almost a case study in supreme mimicry. To be frank, I actually thought it was impossible to do. To hear that sound again was as if we had traveled back in time to 1959 or if Holiday herself was still alive in 2014 – in her prime! (I know, crazy.) This decision, I believe, is the single most crucial factor to the obvious success the show is reveling in.
After accepting the totality of McDonald’s extraordinary gift, our focus turned to the story, the characters in her life, the chats she was having with the audience between songs. Through it, we got to know Holiday’s personal pain, her torment and the reasons that led to her eventual demise at age 44 from cirrhosis. Haunting, evocative and brutally affecting, McDonald, acting as though she was under the influence of drugs and alcohol throughout the whole performance, dug deep into the soul of Billie to extract her essence, her soulfulness and her life’s imprint.
Musically, we were treated to a wonderful repertoire of Holiday’s classic songs including “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness.” For us, it was a night to remember.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is playing at Circle in the Square Theatre until September 21st. For tickets and additional information, please visit the show’s official website: http://ladydayonbroadway.com/
Click below to watch a glimpse of what we experienced…