Five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald has big shoes to fill as she takes on the role of acclaimed jazz singer, Billie Holiday in Lady Day at the Emerson’s Bar and Grill. With a title as big as Holiday’s fame, the play reveals (perhaps even exaggerates) a reticent narrative of her later life. McDonald plays Holiday adequately with her classically refined set of pipes that carry out familiar tunes from Holiday’s one-of-a-kind repertoire.

Billie Holiday, as brilliant as she was, ended on the path to ruin. The jazz singer died in 1959 due to her alcoholism and heroin addiction. She was 44. Her short life was grim, but her musicianship remains legendary and Lady Day takes place a few months before Holiday’s tragic end. In the show, Holiday finds herself at the Emerson’s Bar and Grill in the city of Philadelphia, a place she loathes since it was where she was convicted for drug possession, which left a blemish on her professional life. “I used to tell everybody: When I die, I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell, long’s it ain’t in Philly,” Holiday says as the show opens.

With a touch of sadness, McDonald’s performance of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” haunts you, as her voice eerily mimics Holiday’s howling vibrato. Holiday’s ethereal appearance is beautiful, but instantly becomes grotesque whenever she takes a swig of her drink, reminding us of her flaws. I found myself solemn and disturbed as she slurred her words and her music.

If there’s one little fact about Holiday’s performing style everyone should know, it’s that Holiday preferred a rather tight spotlight. Her stage nerves made for an introverted performer, who wasn’t keen on having her music and her life so publicly exposed. This makes for an awkward dramatic structure in Lady Day. At times, Holiday and her drunkenness could be seen as a spectacle served to us for our entertainment, which sadly happens often in the case of dead celebrities.

Still, McDonald breathes some (misplaced) life into a jazz legend we won’t soon forget. Watching her perform songs such as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child” is a special treat that is not be missed.


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