Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill: An Unforgettable Night of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time with one of the most unique singing voices ever recorded. For fans like me and my mom, seeing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Circle in the Square Theatre was like being transformed back fifty years to a cabaret like Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia, watching Miss Holiday in the flesh. I didn’t know what to expect when I purchased my tickets, but I thought it was going to just be like a concert, watching the renown Audra McDonald sing her version of Billie Holiday songs. My timing was impeccable as I had bought my tickets a week prior to the Tony Awards, when, of course Ms. McDonald accepted her sixth Tony Award for this role.We sat excitedly waiting in our fourth row seats for the show to begin as three musicians played jazz on stage. These were “Miss Holiday’s” musicians, one of which played her trusted piano player, Jimmy Powers. The theater was designed to look like a cabaret bar with cocktail tables surrounding the stage. I had thought about getting these up close and personal seats but then decided against it in order to have a birdseye view a little further back. In retrospect, seeing how Ms. McDonald interacted with the audience, I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t opt for the floor level tickets. In any case our seats were phenomenal with a straight-on view of the stage.

After a much anticipated introduction by “Jimmy,” “Lady Day” made her way down the center aisle, sauntering past the cocktail tables and up the steps to the lone microphone center stage. As she began to sing, the silence of the audience was deafening. I had to ask myself whether I was really on Broadway, as everything about Audra McDonald’s voice, inflections and mannerisms was Billie Holiday. As the show progressed, I tried to imagine how Ms. McDonald prepared for her tole. Did she study each and every nuance of every single song by the late great Lady Day? Had she watched old performance film clips imitating Miss Holiday’s each and every movement and facial expression? And I wasn’t the only one who felt the awe of the performance because I could hear the comments all around me echoing how spot-on Ms McDonald was in every way to Billie Holiday.The show triumphantly combines singing and narrative by the star about “her” life, the important people and influences on it and a visual portrayal of her crippling addiction to heroin. A poignant journey though Billie Holiday’s difficult and tragic 44 years and a tribute to this one of a kind talented singer songwriter, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill gave me chills, made me laugh and brought me to tears. I left the theatre with two conclusions: Billie Holiday was clearly one of America’s musical treasures and Audra McDonald is one of today’s theatrical gems. It is certainly no wonder that she has won more Tonys than any other actor of either gender, and is the only person to win all four acting categories for either gender. After seeing Lady Day, it became clear to me why.

After the show, Mom and I headed for the stage door and were fortunate enough to meet Ms McDonald. Gracious and accommodating, she signed playbills, took pictures and said hello to each and every fan patiently waiting. I took a not-so-good selfie with her of myself, but captured her beautifully! Mom had a great time chatting with one of the other cast member musicians, who was elated to give her his autograph.Another superb night on Broadway for Mom and me – this time at Lady Day!

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