Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Joan Leyden – Intermission Magazine

Something quite remarkable is happening down on Grand Avenue – an unforgettable summoning of the songs, the spirit and the life behind them that characterized the career of Billie Holiday. In this play with music, Billie (Lady Day) lets us know that she is a jazz singer with a blues accent. As she is brought to life by Alexis J. Roston, the true significance of Holiday’s influence on popular music starting in the 1930s is readily apparent – her original phrasing, her personalization of the lyrics, and her strong sense of storytelling. Sinatra credits her as a defining influence on his style.

Now Alexis Roston is not Billie Holiday, but she brings to the role a sensitivity to Holiday’s vocal style, a wonderfully pleasing voice, and real authority in holding her audience. She is also an accomplished actress, and her handling of the interspersed scene from Billie’s life is nuanced and powerful. Credit the playwright of the piece, Lanie Robertson, with having provided material that is factual, often amusing, and ultimately heartbreaking.

Set in a small, dingy South Philadelphia bar, Roston shares the stage with fellow actor Abdul Hamid Royal, who plays Jimmy Powers, Billie’s long-time friend and musical director. He is a real presence throughout the evening, sympathetic and believable as he manages a woman who is slowly coming apart. The time is March 1959 and Billie will die in a New York City hospital in July of the same year.

This haunting homage ends as Billie ended — a used-up artist, leaning heavily on heroin and liquor, who is literally singing to survive. In the “act” that we have witnessed, her pace slows, her speech slurs, and she finds it harder and harder to focus, but she soldiers on to complete the set — with the help of her accompanist. It speaks of the incredible courage, the sheer grit and talent that enabled a great star to endure her unhappy personal life, her problems with addiction, and the rampant racism she encountered — and still continue performing. For those of us not fortunate enough to have seen her, she has left us a considerable legacy in her wide-ranging recordings of songs that are well celebrated in this show, including two of the most beautiful: God Bless the Child and Strange Fruit.

Headed by Abdul Hamid Royal on piano, his trio features two very gifted St. Louis musicians: Kalbe Kirby on drums and Benjamin Wheeler on bass. Mr. Royal, also the musical director of this piece, is not only an acclaimed pianist, but also a recognized composer and arranger. I can assure you that the quality of the music alone in this evening would recommend your buying a ticket.

The direction by Leda Hoffmann seemed effortless; the setting by Dunsi Dai so convincing I forgot I was in a theater; and Patrick Huber’s lighting both appropriate and evocative.

And appropriately enough, the performance I attended ended with a standing ovation!