LADY DAY | London, Wyndham’s Theatre

Audra McDonald stars as Billie Holiday in the West End transfer for this haunting ode to the music and troubled life of the iconic singer, for which McDonald won her (record-breaking) sixth Tony Award in 2014. Half tribute act, half theatrical monologue, McDonald embodies Holiday’s melancholy voice and life so convincingly that it’s easy to forget you’re in a theatre at all.

The earthy and intimate dive of Emerson’s Bar and Grill has been fully recreated on stage, including dirty floor and concrete ceiling. Audience members are seated at cabaret tables on stage, spilling out into the wings and the stalls, while a grand piano, double bass and drums complete the scene.

“I don’t mind if I go to heaven or hell, but don’t send me back to Philly.”  Yet here she is, back in Philadelphia, in bad shape. Stopping the band so she can speak, she remembers prison life and old lovers with bitterness, explaining why she has to wash it away. For Holiday at least, this dive bar has become a kind of limbo between this world and the next, a confessional for her sins, and the sins of others.

McDonald is most famous for her powerful, operatic soprano, and as much as she mimics signature tunes “God Bless The Child” and “Strange Fruit” with startling accuracy, she never quite captures Holiday’s breathy vulnerability. But she does capture our emotions, relaying sad songs and stories with breathtaking honesty. This is a must-see for all Billie Holiday fans: Philadelphia is calling.

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