Some things should never be passed up. In May 2016, Audra McDonald was due to make her West End acting debut in Lanie Robertson's LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL as Billie Holiday, a role for which she had won not only her 6th Tony Award (making her the most awarded performer for performances, not just honorary awards) but also the first to win in each of the four acting categories. However that engagement was cancelled as McDonald announced she was pregnant but a year later and she is finally at the Wyndhams so one simply had to go.
I am sure in the late 1950s there was a similar feeling if Billie Holiday was playing dates but probably for the wrong reasons. Her frequent and very public arrests over her use of narcotics had made her more and more of a liability and in 1947 her card allowing her to play NY clubs was revoked meaning a dramatic loss of income as that was where she could rely on big crowds.
She still performed - even in Europe - but her health deteriorated from her drink and drug addictions and one cannot help but guess that one of the thrills in seeing her onstage was the perverse one of whether she would make it - as was the case with Judy Garland and Amy Winehouse.
Robertson's play imagines a playdate for Billie Holiday in the real Philadelphia club Emerson's Bar & Grill four months before her death from Cirrhosis and heart failure in a New York hospital. Christopher Oram's atmospheric set spills off the stage into the auditorium, with cabaret tables both onstage and in the first seven rows of the stalls - imagine our delight when an usher asked if we would like to move to one of these tables rather than sit in the back-row of the stalls - a difference in seat price of £60!
McDonald ambles onto the stage and it is fairly obvious that she is already 'feeling no pain' however she starts to sing... and that's when the magic happens. Yes, Audra McDonald is doing a carefully-worked on impression rather than an interpretation of Holiday's unique phrasing but wow, what an impression! She is truly remarkable especially when one is aware that her own natural range is a high soprano. She has Holiday's trademark way of curling her voice around a lyric, honeyed yet spiked like a dangerously tampered-with cocktail. But what McDonald captures too is the heaviness in Billie's voice by 1959... a voice worn out by life.
But this is a play-with-music rather than a musical, and while McDonald's singing is extraordinary enough she also delivers an acting performance of blistering intensity. Holiday is not-so-quietly seething that the NY club ban has resulted in her having to play Philadelphia, although it was where she was born she hates it for the unrelenting pressure on her from the city's police.
The gig spirals out of control as Billie ignores the pleas of her pianist Jimmy and starts knocking back drink after drink. She forgets lyrics, accuses the band of not understanding she can only sing songs she feels and after a few more songs, stumbles from the stage. After an extended break she wanders back on cuddling her chihuahua (instant bedlam from the audience) and all seems to have calmed down until one notices her drooping left sleeve showing bleeding needle tracks.
Lanie Robertson's play certainly doesn't try to glamorize his subject - and McDonald certainly doesn't try to soft-peddle her for audience sympathy - but that eventually is the play's major fault. I doubt if Holiday at even her most strung-out would have taken her audience on a whistle-stop tour of the tragedies in her life.
Yes of course not everyone is the audience will be aware of Holiday's wretched background, confrontations with racism and terrible men but eventually I felt like Thelma Ritter in ALL ABOUT EVE who says, when forced to hear the seemingly tragic life of Eve Harrington, "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end"; the misery is piled on so thick it leaves no air to breath.
But under Lonny Price's sensitive direction McDonald triumphs as Billie the singer and Billie the woman, and the songs sound marvellous thanks to pianist Shelton Becton, drummer Frankie Tontoh and bassist Neville Malcolm.
There is a remarkable moment halfway through the show which illustrates McDonald's ability to change moods on a dime: her Billie takes great delight in telling of her immediate revenge on a racist uppity-white-bitch maitre d' who refuses to let her use a restaurant toilet and then launches straight into an intense version of "Strange Fruit" Holiday's self-penned classic indictment of Southern lynchings. So while Robertson's play sometimes feels overladen with misery, Audra McDonald elevates it to an evening of power and wonder.