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A reviews round-up for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill starring Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald makes her long awaited West End debut in Billie Holiday musical-play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

Set in a north Philadelphia dive in 1959, a few months before her death at the age of 44, the play centres on one of Holiday’s final performances.

The six-time Tony winner’s performance was applauded for ‘capturing the style and spirit of the legendary jazz singer’ with Dominic Cavendish (Daily Telegraph) going so far as to say ‘she’s pouring divine nectar into your ears… utterly intoxicating’ and Anne Treneman (The Times) calling her ‘spell binding’.

There was some criticsim levelled at Lanie Robertson’s book which seemed to dwell on the misery and decline of the hugely accomplished Holiday.

Read our round-up of reviews below.

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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs until 19 September 2017 at the Wyndham’s Theatre.

REVIEWS ROUND-UP

STAR RATING The Daily Telegraph

‘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.’

‘Lanie Robertson’s “musical play” .. 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… it’s utterly intoxicating.’

Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph

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STAR RATING The Guardian

‘Six-time Tony award-winner McDonald captures the style and spirit of the legendary jazz singer, but Lanie Robertson’s play wallows in her decline’

‘It is a joy to hear McDonald apply her operatically trained voice to Holiday’s jazz style. She gives us the rueful regret of When a Woman Loves a Man, pays raucous tribute to Bessie Smith in Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer and brings out the anger of Strange Fruit with its evocation of a lynching and its unforgettable line about “the sudden smell of burning flesh”.

‘But, when she moves into the personal memories, I was reminded of Pauline Kael’s comment on the Hollywood biopic, Lady Sings the Blues: that it ignored Holiday’s achievements to dwell on “the zingy romanticism of failure”. That is even more true here.’

Michael Billington, The Guardian

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STAR RATING The Stage

‘It’s a performance of immense technical skill, if at times one that feels slightly mechanical and uncanny, and it propels a production that can feel formulaic and even a little ghoulish.’

‘What saves this from feeling like an exercise in rubbernecking is the power of McDonald’s voice and the way she conveys Holiday’s mixture of strength and fragility, her china plate grace. There’s rawness and anger here too, a reminder of how appallingly she was treated.’

Natasha Tripney, The Stage

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STAR RATING Time Out

‘The Broadway legend is making her long-anticipated West End debut in a play that’s a bleak tour of another kind of America. And she’s worth the wait. She’s utterly, mesmerisingly convincing as she inhabits Holiday

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.

‘Director Lonny Price’s luxuriant production creates a gilt-edged replica of a mid-century cabaret club. The stage bustles with tables and chairs, inhabited by awkward-looking audience members who the increasingly desperate McDonald grasps onto for support and comfort.’

‘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.’

Alice Saville, TimeOut

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STAR RATING The Times

‘Audra McDonald is spellbinding as Billie Holiday in a haunting portrait of a genius set on self-destruction’

Ann Treneman, The Times

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