Unless you’re a musical theatre devotee, Audra McDonald is probably the biggest star you’ve never heard of.
She has attained legend status in her native America having won a record six Tony awards, two Grammys and an Emmy. So it’s surprising that she is only now making her West End debut. But this mesmerising portrayal of jazz icon Billie Holiday – which bagged her that record sixth Tony – has been well worth the wait.
Lanie Robertson’s play with music is set in the eponymous Philadelphia nightspot in March 1959 where 44-year-old Billie is about to play a gig. History tells us that she will be dead within four months.
Between songs Billie recalls significant moments in her life, and boy, what a life. The illegitimate child of teenage parents (her father deserted the family soon after her birth); sexually abused as a ten-year-old; a prostitute by 14; years of drug and alcohol dependency and spells in jail. Not to mention encountering more than her fair share of sickening racism. One story about trying to use the toilet facilities in a whites-only establishment while on tour with the Artie Shaw Band is as hilarious as it is chilling. Despite this turbulent personal life, she somehow became one of the most respected singers of the 20th century.
Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday (photographs by Marc Brenner)
McDonald doesn’t just recount these stories as Billie; she becomes Billie before our eyes: the posture, the tilt of the head, the unique musical phrasing on classic songs such as Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child, which was written for her mother who she affectionately called The Duchess. What she does with her voice is really quite remarkable. An operatic soprano by nature and by training, she manages to lower it a couple of octaves to give us the rasp that came from years of physical abuse.
But while she captures Billie perfectly, this is no Stars in Their Eyes impersonation. It’s nuanced, with a precise attention to detail.
Lonnie Price directs with a light touch and Christoper Oram’s set includes on-stage seating and replaces the first few rows with tables and chairs, which helps give it all a feeling of intimacy.
There are laughs as Billie rambles on and is cajoled by her pianist (Shelton Becton) to sing another song, but ultimately this is a heartbreaking portrait of a life unraveling before our eyes. It’s very likely the McDonald housekeeper will have an Olivier award to dust as well by this time next year.