In her photographs, the multiple Tony-winner Audra McDonald looks nothing like Billie Holiday. But when she appears at Wyndham’s Theatre in Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill wearing a slinky white dress, and, later, pins a gardenia to her hair, she is the spitting image of the drink-and-drugs victim who was one of the great jazz singers ever. What’s more, the Julliard-trained operatic soprano manages as well to inhabit Holiday’s voice, diving down into the lower register, swooping up notes, stretching them both rhythmically and in pitch, dropping her gs, but pronouncing her other consonants clearly enough for you to make out the lyrics of even her wooziest songs.
It’s one of the theatrical experiences of a lifetime. Lanie Robertson’s script is subtle, taut, without even a touch of kitsch, and exactly the right amount of camp. He takes Billie through her life of every kind of abuse: rape aged eleven, prostitution a couple of years later, heroin, booze addiction, and racial persecution. Dealing with the last, Mr Robertson details the time she was touring with a big-name all-white band, who dined in the kitchen in solidarity with Billie, as she was not allowed in the restaurant. When Billie was banned from using the whites-only loo, she lifted her skirts and did what needed to be done. Robertson writes this scene so that it seems perfectly tasteful, and McDonald plays it as though she’s making a perfectly logical (and even slightly humorous) political protest.
In Lonnie Price’s Philadelphia night-club production, set designer Christopher Oram has tables on the stage, and the front rows of sets have also been removed to accommodate tables. There seemed to be waiter-service for these lucky ticket-holders. But for me it raised the question of how they dealt with the rake of the auditorium floor? A neat trick to make the tables level without disturbing the sight-lines of the rows of seats behind them. The terrific on-stage musicians were Shelton Becton, musical director and pianist, who also has a speaking role as “Jimmy,” Frankie Tonto on drums and Neville Malcolm, bass. Some of the on-stage audience have a role to play as well, and I wonder whether they were able to rehearse.
Lanie Robertson’s elegant drama with music takes place in March 1959, four months before Billie Holiday died. She was working in this dive in South Philly because a drugs conviction in 1947 robbed her of the cabaret licence (still) needed to perform live music in New York City. Like many, I mistakenly thought that Billie had spent some time at Narco, the Federal Narcotics Hospital in Lexington, KY, when I was a child in Lexington. Wrong: Joe Guy, Billie Holiday’s husband, was an inmate of Narco. She did her time at Alderson, a women’s prison in West Virginia.
It’s impossible to praise sufficiently McDonald’s performance of the 13 sung musical numbers in the show – which incorporates a sort of raucous homage to Bessie Smith in “Gimmie a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” and “Baby Doll,” and has three songs written by Billie herself, including the heartbreaking “God Bless the Child.” As the (90 minutes without an interval) evening goes on, McDonald sips from the drink she occasionally mislays, and gets giddier by the glass, but without ever approaching the maudlin. Her vocal performance, paradoxically, gets better the more she staggers. She takes her curtain call holding the Chihuahua Pepi (played by Tilly, a veteran of the London stage, last seen in the Almeida’s Little Eyolf). I’ve asked myself what it was that makes McDonald’s performance so outstanding, and I think it is that, even as her Billie reaches her lowest ebb, McDonald never denies her character the dignity of the genuine artist.
A nice touch is the dramatic tension generated by the wait for her to sing “Strange Fruit,” the song about lynching Billie made famous in 1939. It was written by “Lewis Allan,” a nom-de-clef for Abel Meeropol (1903-86). His Communist party membership was one reason for concealing his identity. Allan/Meeropol also wrote the Frank Sinatra hit, “The House I Live In,” and the Peggy Lee number, “Apples, Peaches and Cherries,” the royalties from which provided a good part of the family income. What is less well known, at least not mentioned in the excellent programme notes, is that Meeropol and his wife Anne, adopted and brought up Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s boys, Robbie and Michael.
This is, of course, only a curious footnote to a stunning, unforgettable occasion. London is lucky to have been able to host it.