Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Theatre, Musicals
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(32user reviews)
 (© Marc Brenner)
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© Marc BrennerAudra McDonald as Billie Holiday and Shelton Becton as Jimmy Powers 
 (© Marc Brenner)
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© Marc BrennerAudra McDonald as Billie Holiday
 (© Marc Brenner)
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© Marc BrennerAudra McDonald as Billie Holiday
 (© Marc Brenner)
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© Marc BrennerAudra McDonald as Billie Holiday
 (© Marc Brenner)
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© Marc BrennerAudra McDonald as Billie Holiday
 (© Marc Brenner)
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© Marc BrennerAudra McDonald as Billie Holiday

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The poignant story of chanteuse Billie Holiday's life, told through the substantial talent of Broadway star Audra McDonald.

'I been arrested all over this damn country’, announces Audra McDonald. The Broadway legend, and six-time Tony winner (an all-time record), is making her long-anticipated West End debut in a play that’s a bleak tour of another kind of America: one where Billie Holiday was created, lionised then destroyed in the twilight economy of cabaret bars. And she’s worth the wait. She’s utterly, mesmerisingly convincing as she inhabits Holiday, quipping with deceptive lightness that Philly is the only place that put her in jail. Now, she’s back at Philadelphia’s titular Emerson’s Bar & Grill for a night of songs that’s all but railroaded by her trauma, alcoholism and drug addiction.

McDonald has Holiday’s unique croon down pat. She might have made her name as a musical theatre star, but here, she reigns in her huge, well-trained soprano, and tortures it into something spikier and more wayward. She works her way from light jazz standards, elaborated with virtuouso trills and falls, to the fury of ‘Strange Fruit’, or the bluesy ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do’, a grim justification of her right to self-destruct. As playwright Lanie Robertson’s book emphasises, each song she sings comes from pain buried deep inside her. She can’t trot them out like an automaton: but as she rambles into stories of her adolescence or abusive past relationships, her band try to jog her back into the present by striking up familiar notes and chords.

Around her, director Lonny Price’s luxuriant production creates a gilt-edged replica of a mid-century cabaret club. The stage bustles with tables and chairs, inhabited by awkward-looking audience members who the increasingly desperate McDonald grasps onto for support and comfort.

It’s an uncanny, unsettling mix of authenticity and artificiality that’s typical of this show. It’s fundamentally a pretty strange spectacle to engineer, mixing the sumptuousness of a plushy theatre-turned-cabaret bar, and even more so of McDonald’s sumptuous voice, with a narrative that stresses the comfortless reality of Holiday’s life.

That discomfort is needed. Holiday’s talent flourished and withered in a world that was so racist it killed her: even at the peak of her stardom she wasn’t permitted to eat alongside her white band in a restaurant dining room. It’s hard not to feel a topical echo, both in the modern context of US police violence against African Americans, and as part of an overwhelmingly white opening night audience, watching as she self-destructs. But this brutal performance feels like an interrogation of the voyeurism that makes us obsessed with watching talented, troubled women (especially black women) break down, suffer and go crazy. It sees us, and holds a cracked mirror up to our rapt faces.

By: Alice Saville

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Users say (32)

4 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

4.3 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:15
  • 4 star:13
  • 3 star:2
  • 2 star:2
  • 1 star:0
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My mother when I was younger would always play Billie Holiday, she is one of mothers ultimate favorites. We were both truly blown away by Audra McDonald's performance as Billie Holiday and it was such a powerful emotional story and she held the performance and character throughout, some parts when you even felt you shouldn't be there watching. Such amazing monologues and really well written. Every song was sang to perfection and flawless. The show wasn't very long with no interval, the stage is set as bar and you can really be apart of the act should you wish and purchase tickets to be in the bar on the stage, we had stall which were fantastic as well. The band were fantastic and played beautifully, it was like being taken back in time and really getting a taste of how it was all those years ago. This is a great show and performance to be seen!

tastemaker

What can I say other than I feel like I saw Billie Holiday on a London West End Stage. Audra McDonald brings this wonderful but oh so tortured soul back to life. Her voice is incredible and I found myself as the end of some songs, when the story of her life started again, to be torn away from another dimension where the song to me to. Never in my life have I hear a voice like this and I’m not sure I ever will again. If you like Billie Holiday, don’t hesitate, just run there, you won’t regret it. 

tastemaker

Audra McDonald is certainly a gifted actress.  In a stage set of a nightclub she conveys through words and song, the unhappy and desperate life of Billie Holiday through her formative and adult years, with an enormous amount of emotion and credibility.  It took a while for her vocals to settle into the unique sound of the celebrated jazz singer but after the first couple of songs, she was impeccable.  A clever portrayal, an insightful look at the dreadful state of America's communities less than 100 years ago. And as we know, the battle continues.

tastemaker

I love theatre productions which:

  • make you feel like a part of the story
  • are entertaining, but also thought provoking, get you to do some research/reading afterwards
  • are a bit different, a bit unconventional


This show has it all.


I don't want to spoil the experience by writing down every detail, because I think the production got me harder thanks to the fact I didn't know anything about it and just a few information about Billie Holliday beforehand, but I would like to share the following thoughts.


When I entered the auditorium I was amazed how they've transformed it. I was lucky to sit on the front( I recommend you to book a table close or on the side of the stage), I could see the band and the atmosphere got me right away. I think this closeness helped me to be more engaged with the show, because it wasn't easy.


It wasn't easy because of the tragedy of a human life you witness is challenging. During the production I felt more and more uncomfortable. Sometimes I had to look away and I saw my fellow audience members did the same. We needed those few "laugh-breaks" greatly.


During the show I was astonished by Audra McDonald's performance, but after I watched some videos at home about BH, I feel more amazed. The resemblance of the voice and the gestures are incredible.


Summarising: 

  • great music (I loved the band) and singing
  • hard, but still fascinating (life)story
  • fantastic acting 
moderator

Wow! Audra McDonald is out of this world. What singing, what acting!  Her tragic life is reflected in this somber play showcasing the decline of a true legend few months before her death at the early age of 44. You are in a Philly club watching Billie Holiday in concert, but she is high and drunk and, as the night progresses,  she is suffering from her memories and her drug habit. When I closed my eyes -and I saw many spectators do likewise at times- you could actually hear Billie and her heartbreaking delivery. It is overwhelming. A play, a concert, a re-enacting of a real Billie concert? All of it, but above all else Audra the Magnificent. Chapeau!


Audra McDonald's performance as Billie is flawless, a level of acting I had never witnessed in any show. The musical takes you back to one of the last shows of Billie Holiday, right after her time in jail, at a time when she is experiencing heavy addiction to alcohol and drugs. This is not a show for the faint-hearted, Billie is broken, angry and alone against the world and it will break your heart from beginning to the end. I would recommend it more for Billie Holiday fans or at least for people who have listened to Holiday before and read some bits about her life, it is not easy to follow without some key information. Also don't expect it to be a musical with 10 different settings and a lot of dancers, the decor of the jazz club she is playing at remains throughout the show and she is pretty much the only character. 

tastemaker

On walking into the theatre you're welcomed by the sounds of soft jazz and are taken back in time to the 1950's, feeling immediately part of the crowd in this typical American jazz bar, Emerson's. For some members of the audience you really are part of the audience; sat on stage at small round tables with dimly lit light shades. Audra is announced as Billie Holiday in all the glamour she once was, and I must say she was by far the best thing about this show! The level of acting she sustained throughout the performance was amazing...and this show lasted 1 hour 45 minutes with no interval. While I don't think the atmosphere would have been the same with an interval, I felt like I needed one! The chairs at the tables were not the most comfortable and I definitely missed out on my interval ice cream break.

This is a show that would be most appreciated by anyone more familiar with Billie Holiday but it was entertaining regardless, and I did enjoy the music!

Tastemaker

This stunning solo performance by Tony award winning Audra McDonald was outstanding... Not to say the 3 musicians backing her vocals weren't good (because they were). An amazing one set monologue interspersed with beautiful jazz songs, telling the sad but legendary story of Billie Holiday. On top of the on point acting, singing and instrumentals, the musical is set in a Philly jazz club with small tables on stage and at the front of the theatre available for the audience - it really makes you feel part of it! 

Be warned this show starts at 7.45 and goes straight through to 9.30 with no interval so make sure you give yourself time to grab a drink and empty your bladder. 

tastemaker

I was surprised to have thoroughly enjoyed this musical! Audra was an absolute sensation as Billie Holiday, the mannerisms and the wonderful voice were spot on. The set was also sublime - laid out as an intimate jazz club, I was thrilled to be at one of the front row tables and pleased I wasn't sat actually on the stage as some audience members were - perhaps a little too exposed! A real treat was a cameo from an adorable dog as Billie's treasured pet. All in all I'd recommend this musical to others, Audra and Billie's story were fascinating.

Tastemaker

I loved Audra Mcdonald's cabaret shows though I felt a little flat after this show, despite a great performance from the lady herself. Maybe because I'm not overly familiar with Billie Holiday's repertoire other than a couple of hits. Enjoyable nonetheless and an interesting story.

tastemaker

What a performance! Audra McDonald (as Billie Holiday) was incredible, she is so versatile and the full package being able to sing and dance. The atmosphere of the set/stage immersed the audience into their very own Jazz Bar- there was even seating on the stage. A show like this makes you forget who you are, where you are and what you are doing as you are drawn into the here and now- the drama unraveling before you. This breath taking show is one not to be missed so suggest booking before others realize this is the must see show of the month if not year. A helpful hint is to eat before you go and don't drink too much because there is no interval. 

tastemaker

My dad is a huge Billie Holiday fan, so when I had the chance to take him to the show, we jumped at the chance. The following review comes from him, rather than myself, as he knows what he's talking about (where Ms Holiday is concerned, anyway!): 


What a star Audra McDonald is - it's the nearest I'll ever get to seeing Billie Holiday live. From the very first note, she brought the star back to life. If you closed your eyes and just listened, you were there in Emerson's in Philadelphia in 1959. 


The show is a reenactment of one of her last ever shows, with 'Billie' talking through her own life. The 'real' show was just a few days before Billie actually passed away so it's all very moving. Through her 'drunk ramblings' she tells the story of her life, and it's one of the saddest stories you'll ever hear. As the performance goes on, she becomes more drunk to the point where she's falling over by the end. Her tales wander off and she repeats herself a lot, evoking an emotional and troubled star 


The feeling of the theatre is that is a jazz club, with tables replacing the first few rows of the stalls. If you can get one of these seats, do! It's a wonderful show where you are truly part of the action. 


An emotional and fitting tribute to a real legend. 


Listen to my dad - he knows what he's talking about! 



Tastemaker
Featured

I went to this play having no idea what the play was about. The only piece of information I did have was that it was best not to bring any under 18s along, which reasonably led me to believe there would either be a lot of violence, a lot of sex, or both. It turned out to be an actual Billie Holiday gig. Now I know, I know, Lady Day is no longer, but Audra McDonald carried this entire show by herself with incredible resemblance.

I did not know anything about Billie’s life before the show and what a sad life that was: suffered racism her entire life, was raped at age 10, got led to heroine-use by her awful first husband… Really not a walk in the park!

I cannot stress enough how magnificent this actress was. She could convey emotions like nobody’s business and played the tragic role of Billie Holiday, her awesomeness but also her drunken snapping and crying perfectly. Her voice was strong, and deep and subtle and simply not from this era.

She was beautifully supported by the brilliant jazz band that got great rounds of applause throughout the play.

I also really loved the staging: it was a fairly immersive experience as some of the audience was sat on stage, as if they were in the club watching the gig and so were the first few rows in front of the stage.

Extra super cuteness overload moment: a DOG! A super, super cute dog was on stage for a few minutes, filling up the hearts of everyone in the theatre.

PS: Beware, there’s no interval so hit those loos like it’s your last chance before the show starts, because it is.

Go see it!

tastemaker

"I'm always making a comeback but nobody ever tells me where I've been." - Well it felt like she had never gone away with Audra McDonalds stunning performance as Billie Holiday. 


Walking into the theatre I was immediately transported back to the 1940s to a jazz club in Philadelphia, with seats in front of the stage laid out as if sitting at a table in a jazz club with some on the stage also you felt completely immersed. Audra McDonald came out in all of her Lady Day glory joining the fabulous jazz trio on stage. The show consisted of incredible singing performances intertwined with Ms.Day telling us about her life, relationships, family, getting into trouble etc. As the play goes on Billie deteriorates right in front of us, making it a heartbreaking watch, to see such talent crumble in front of you. Although years and years apart it makes you think of such incredible artists who have fallen just the same; Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston etc. 

I used to listen to Billie Holiday growing up, still do, and I can honestly say that McDonald played a blinder last night, I would highly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in the music scene back in the day and the life of Ms.Day. 

tastemaker

Audra McDonald's performance as Billie Holiday is brilliant. The musical was totally unexpected with 'Billie' coming out on stage totally inebriated and slowly deteriorating to the end of the show. By the end it was getting slightly uncomfortable to watch which reinforces Audra's ability as an actress. It is almost a monologue with Billie telling you her life story amongst singing. The band were also great musicians with the piano player trying to control Billie from spiralling further out of control. He was the only person who spoke throughout the show.

We were seated at the front of the stalls on tables so although we had a good view, it was quite cramped but it felt as though you were actually in a jazz bar in Philadelphia. There were also some seats on stage for audience members which added to the feel of being in a jazz bar.

tastemaker

Audra McDonald is a powerhouse performer, perfectly portraying Billie Holiday's downward spiral. It's almost as if this show echoes her life, as the drunker she gets, the more difficult it becomes for her to sing her iconic songs, even ending with a song where no words are uttered. This show is not an easy watch and at times I felt a little uncomfortable, but it deals well with the subject matter and you do feel immersed in her world; as if Billie Holiday herself is in the room. I loved the cabaret seating and got a front table that was so close that I could almost feel the tears dripping off her face.

tastemaker

The sensational, mesmerising, awe-inspiring Audra McDonald at the Lady Day West End was a true success.

What an experience to be part of such a special, intimate evening with the beautiful Audra McDonald as the legendary jazz star 'Billie Holiday' at Emerson's Bar & Grill.

Audra oozed star quality from beginning to end like I've never seen before.

The show was an intense surprise with dark moments of love and suffering, but it was the perfect atmosphere to feel the excitement of Lady Day.

What a voice. Audra's presence on stage is incredibly intoxicating. Her invigorating character and her powerful singing combined a show full of truth, of life and of love.

I felt her every word. I felt that I was at the Emerson's Bar & Grill and enjoying the best evening with the one and only Billie Holiday.

Audra transmitted such an inspirational, breathtaking performance. Her translucency to the character made it authentic and quite emotional to experience.

I can't believe she played Madame Garderobe in the new Beauty and the Beast. The incredible opera singer. A dream!!

I just realised it when I got home in the evening. I still can't believe it.

It was an evening of passion, of sentiment, of quality like no other. Audra told a story of life through singing songs that have inspired and touched people in unimaginable ways.

We as the audience heard her personal stories of life. Holiday did indeed suffer with her losses, but I felt that jazz was her escape to be happy.

She loved singing and she definitely captured my attention throughout the entire evening.

Pay attention to the little character that she'll bring on stage. This cute, adorable addition to the show is so lovely.

I had moments of pure laughter and enjoyment. It was an evocative evening filled with expressive, strong language.

I had the privilege of being at the front of the stage on the stalls cabaret seats.

I really felt that I was also part of this astonishing event. There were people also being seated on stage. That to me felt very warm and extra special.

With no intervals and only an hour and a half of Lady Day, let Holiday infuse you all with her magical wit.

The jazz band played with unity and they also did a phenomenal job to achieve and to inspire.

I recommend you all out there to grab a drink and see this legendary, glorious woman that is Audra McDonald.

#TOTastemaker

Love MD.

Tastemaker

Life-affirming, this isn't. This play delves into the tragic life of Billie Holiday, over the course of one inebriated performance at a Philadelphia club. The central performance is remarkable. But the play does drag on a bit, as the audience witnesses her downward spiral.  

tastemaker

The story of the iconic jazz icon Billie Holiday brought to life by the super talented Audra McDonald. Lady Day takes you on a journey through her turbulent but extraordinary life. Immerse yourself and enjoy your evening at Emerson's Bar and Grill as you prepare yourself for some awkward moments as Billie takes you through tales of racial discrimination, abandonment, addiction, rape and shares the poignant moments of her life. Soulful renditions of hits such as strange fruit and God bless the child stir your emotions. "A super performance from this broadway star and alongside a fantastic score.


As much as Audra McDonald's performance and embodiment of Billie Holiday and in particular her singing voice is astonishing - truly! This play quickly became very uncomfortable viewing. The latter half devolves into increasingly incoherent drunken ramblings interspersed with a half-verse of a song here and there and it feels an uncomfortably voyeuristic. After an hour the magnificent singing fails to be able to swamp the gross fetishisation of the downfall of a great artist.

tastemaker

The fact that I turned to my friend to suggest the leading star had come on stage drunk shows just how good the actions was. The singing was even better. You need to go and see this show, period! Wether you know Billie Holiday's music or not. The set design is great, the leading lady is delightful and the band were fantastic!

tastemaker

The story of Billie Holiday is a tragic one - such potential wasted due to drugs and alcohol abuse.  Audra McDonald is brilliant in the lead and draws you in beautifully.  Her voice and mannerisms are perfect too.  The staging is also fairly unique with the stalls and stage being set up as a bar for the audience to sit in.  Not a light-hearted show, but an interesting one to catch.

tastemaker

You are invited to spend some time @ Emerson's Bar & Grill in Philadelphia, to hear Billie Holiday.

That's the story, and you do feel like you are there.

Audra McDonald has a great voice, and she uses it very skillfully to create Billie Holiday. She doesn't try

to update the sound, or smooth out the rawness, she just interpretes the woman warts & all.

Between the songs, we get rambling stories from an intoxicated Billie about her fight with men, & with drugs, & a picture of her life during America's ugly colour segregation. 

Tastemaker

I loved the musical. Audra McDonald is fantastic as Billie Holiday. A couple of songs in, and my disbelief was completely suspended. You can really believe it’s Lady Day singing on stage, she’s that good. It’s also (and I did not expect that) really a one woman show. The whole cast is comprised of Audra, a piano player (who, I must say, was also great at portraying a friend trying to hold the mess of a woman Billie became together) and 2 more band players (the latter two don’t speak a word). It’s a perfect slightly over 1.5 hr long musical (no interval, so come prepared) and a great intro into easy-listening jazz (and yeah, I know she sings about hung slaves in her Strange Fruit, but the delivery is totally accessible, which makes the lyrics and the imagery even more striking). The creators also make full use of the night club set up of Wyndham's Theatre, as Audra goes into the crowd to mingle as part of her performance. Oh, and there’s a real cigarette and a real dog involved (very appropriate and to the point given Billie Holiday’s frequent run-ins with the police).

I also left acutely aware how recent the veneer of racial integration is and how easily it can be destroyed.


Audra McDonald is Billie Holiday to perfection and backed up by an incredible jazz band. An absolute must see. It's not in town for long so get a ticket now!


Wish I could give it 10 stars. Don't hesitate in considering to go and see it just go, this is one of the best things I have ever seen..............BRILLIANT !!!!!!!!!!!!!


Wow! A heartbreakingly beautiful piece that sheds light on both the unparalleled talent, and the self-destructive nature of Billie Holiday. Audra McDonald is incredible and, along with the band, totally transforms the (very pretty) Wyndham's Theatre. If you don’t cry at least once you must be a robot.


An absolute must for Billie Holiday fans, this bitter-sweet, awfully touching piece of theatre transports you back in time and totally absorbs you into a jazz-club in the 1950s. Audra McDonald is incredible at mirroring the stunning voice, tone and mannerisms of Billie Holiday in her tragic decline. Goosebump-provoking, funny and harrowing all at the same time, Lady Day is not to be missed.  


Lady Day is a fantastic, one of a kind show. Audra McDonald's performance is exceptional, and for 90 minutes or so you feel totally transported as she brings Billie Holiday to life, from telling stories of her life to flawless renditions of the singer's classics. Wyndham's Theatre is transformed into a Philadelphia jazz club, with audience members on stage adding to the reality of the setting. Not to be missed.

Staff Writer

Now having seen her live, I fully understand why Audra McDonald is considered to be the super-star of Broadway. The soprano did an insanely brilliant job bringing Billie's style and tone to life. The show itself was tragic, heartbreaking and touching. Such a powerful but simple show.

Tastemaker

I was young the first time I heard Billie Holiday on my Uncle's reel to reel, I've loved her voice since. Even though she died before I was born, I have always wished I could have seen her live. From the moment Audra opens her mouth...3 notes into the first song and I had gooseflesh. The monologue is bittersweet, funny until you realise how sad it really is.

I saw the premiere because I was so anxious, bought cheapest seats up in the balcony. Although a few parts were difficult to see as Billie moves around the bar but still excellent views! Might want to try and get stage seats on the bar. If you like Billie, this is a must see!