Review: Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Queens-native Audra McDonald has won five Tony Awards for her work on Broadway. She’s been recognized for her extraordinary singing as well as her skillful acting. Now in a limited-run performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” she is once again thrilling audiences and generating Tony buzz.

Playwright Lanie Robertson wrote a 90-minute play about Billie Holiday giving one of her last performances at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia. That night, accompanied only by a piano player, obviously high, she sang 10-12 songs in front of the seven people in the audience. She even brought her dog Pepi onstage with her.

Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald

The Circle in the Square audience numbers several hundred with some folks sitting at round tables in front of the stage and the rest in regular theater seating. Audra McDonald is accompanied by a three-piece band.

Last year, Dee Dee Bridgewater gave a fine performance as Holiday in the off-Broadway show “Lady Day.” However, the show felt contrived when Holiday “recreated” certain traumatic events in her life.

In Emerson’s version, Holiday gives some of her background, including some of her disappointments and tragedies. She makes references to the people who influenced her life and her career while their photographs flash on the screen behind her.

The flow of the story never interrupts the flow of the music.

The bulk of the performance is composed of a dozen or so songs, including a couple written by Holiday. She sings “God Bless The Child” which she wrote for her mother. Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” was written as a reaction to the trip down south and the lynchings.

McDonald is so good that she becomes Lady Day before our eyes. With a blues/jazz sound and the unmistakable influence of Louis Armstrong, she charms the audience.

The sad events that inspired Lanie Robertson was one of the last concerts that the real Holiday ever gave. Yet her memory and her music continue to entertain audiences’ years after her death at age 44 in 1959. In the show, Holiday refers to the audience as her “friends.” Fortunately for us, Queens-born Audra McDonald has come home to her friends.

-Elyse Trevers