Over recent years, Broadway has delighted us with musicals based on the works of some of music's most well-known pioneers. The cast does their best to emulate the lead laid out before them. This can be a daunting task and a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Tony Award-winning Audra McDonald does such a fantastic job echoing the late Billie Holiday that you at times believe that you're being awarded one last performance from Holiday herself.
That's the setup that for the show as well, and hype that it sure lives up to. Just months before Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959, she returned to a Philadelphia nightclub late one night, boozed up an drugged up, to perform for a crowd of a handful of people. The play which heavily features much music but also many revelations about Holiday's personal life, background, and her demons, puts Holiday's range on display in full force. Behind her sits a three-man band and more distantly projections of the people who helped get her through her trials and travails.
Ultimately, it was Holiday's musical prowess that helped power her through. The sparseness of the set conveys both a sense of the immediacy and closeness of the occasion as well as the shortcomings within Holiday herself. There's little to see, but a whole lot to witness. During this 90-minute show, she lets it all hang out.
This marvelous show comes courtesy of Lanie Robertson who was so shaken by the thought of this story when he heard it that he couldn't escape the image of Holliday. He needed to stage it.
The only other human character (there's also, briefly, a chihuahua) is Holiday's piano player, Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton). He tries many times to engage with Holiday, to calm her down, and to keep her under control. But the only thing he can do is let her sing, directing her back into the spotlight where she's most comfortable and feels whole again. And, despite our sympathy for the star's setbacks and pitfalls, we're grateful that we get to see her sing one last time.