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Review Round-Ups

Did the critics get the blues over Audra McDonald's Lady Day?

The Tony Award winner stars as Billie Holiday in the musical play at Wyndham's

Daisy Bowie-Sell, WhatsOnStage

★★★★

"Billie Holiday fans rejoice. Here is an evening which will, at times, make you feel as though you are in the presence of the woman herself. Although that is both a sweet and bitter pill, as Lanie Robertson's play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill introduces us to the singer months before her untimely death."

"Christopher Oram's brilliant hazy dive-bar designs transform Wyndham's into a Philly music joint in 1959 – literally Emerson's Bar & Grill. The front rows of the stalls have been taken out and replaced with cabaret tables, and there is a bar onstage, with seating for more of the audience."

"With a head ranged slightly to the left and a slight hunch of the shoulders, Audra McDonald encompasses all the singer's kooky mannerisms. Her voice has a thick, back-of-the-throat feel to it which is so uncanny. This is as close as you're going to get to hearing that sad, smoky, heaven-tinged sound for real."

"The most remarkable moment of the play comes when McDonald sings Holiday's cold, harsh protest song "Strange Fruit". After telling a horrendous but surprisingly hilarious story of racism she experienced while on tour, she launches into the piece and it is so heart-wrenching and so despairing."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph

★★★★

"Bringing the Broadway star and six times Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald to the West End stage for the first time, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill does its bit, doomed though it be to fall short, to pay tribute to Holiday."

"Lanie Robertson's "musical play" - first seen in 1986 - doesn't give us the tear-jerking spectacle of a spent force, even though it's set four months before her death in July 1959. Instead, it embellishes a real-life event of unmistakable pathos: the night Holiday, hard-up and out of favour (prohibited from playing New York), pitched up in a dive in Philadelphia - the city of her birth - to perform to a paltry crowd."

"When McDonald warbles as Lady Day, it's as if she's pouring divine nectar into your ears; here, beautifully modulated, is all the playfulness, mischief, yearning, sadness and stoicism to be found in those crackling recordings of long ago."

"The squiffy, meandering and stammering between-songs chatter includes much memorable anecdotage but also bluntly telegrammed bits of auto-bio ("I'll never forget that - that and being raped when I was 10," runs one frank aside)."

Michael Billington, The Guardian

★★★

"One legend gets to play another in this musical play: Audra McDonald, a six-time Tony award winner, appears as the great Billie Holiday. But while it is good to see McDonald, reprising her 2014 Broadway performance, on a London stage, I find something unbearably painful about the way Lanie Robertson's play dwells obsessively on the sad spectacle of its subject's final humiliation."

"McDonald stumbles on, suggesting Holiday is high, and intersperses a dozen or more songs with rambling reminiscences. It is a joy to hear McDonald apply her operatically trained voice to Holiday's jazz style. "

"We hear the terrible stories of Holiday's childhood, of the drugs bust that stripped her of her New York cabaret card and of her disastrous relationships with men, but not that she had made more than a hundred recordings by the age of 25."

"But, while McDonald is a supreme artist who captures the style and spirit of Holiday, there is something morbid about the show's fascination with the singer's decline and fall."

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday at the curtain call
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Ann Treneman, The Times

★★★★★

"Robertson... has created a piece of theatre that will haunt every one of us in the audience. I was spellbound from the moment Audra McDonald arrived on stage, seemingly a bit vacant (tipsy? high?). But then the piano player begins with the first notes of "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" and her voice, gravelly and girlie, intimate and world-weary, takes over."

"McDonald wanders around the stage in a long white sparkly gown and fingerless opera gloves, chasing her drink, which we watch her pour, unsteadily, filling it to beyond the rim (believe me, it's possible) with vodka. She talks about her men (bad) and her mother, the Duchess (good), her childhood (much of it spent in whorehouses), racism, rape, her addiction to heroin (or "stuff", as she called it) and her love of the music of Bessie Smith."

"Christopher Oram's set, with its little tables and chairs, is so realistic that it doesn't feel like a stage. The three-piece band, led by the pianist Shelton Becton, also feels authentic, as if somehow we have stumbled into a secret gig. Holiday died at 44, a few months after that show in Philly — this is the closest any of us will get. It's the real deal, this one. Get a ticket."

Alice Saville, Time Out

★★★★

"McDonald has Holiday's unique croon down pat. She might have made her name as a musical theatre star, but here, she reigns in her huge, well-trained soprano, and tortures it into something spikier and more wayward. She works her way from light jazz standards, elaborated with virtuouso trills and falls, to the fury of "Strange Fruit", or the bluesy "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness if I Do", a grim justification of her right to self-destruct."

"As playwright Lanie Robertson's book emphasises, each song she sings comes from pain buried deep inside her. She can't trot them out like an automaton: but as she rambles into stories of her adolescence or abusive past relationships, her band try to jog her back into the present by striking up familiar notes and chords. "

"It's an uncanny, unsettling mix of authenticity and artificiality that's typical of this show. It's fundamentally a pretty strange spectacle to engineer, mixing the sumptuousness of a plushy theatre-turned-cabaret bar, and even more so of McDonald's sumptuous voice, with a narrative that stresses comfortless reality of Holiday's life."

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs at Wyndham's Theatre, London until 9 September.

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