Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post Dispatch, February 22, 2017

Alexis J. Roston takes us time-traveling to hear Lady Day

In March 1959, the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday gave one of her last performances at a little club in Philadelphia. Seven people were in the audience.

Since then, who knows how many fans have wished they could have been there that night?

With “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” Max & Louie Productions does its part to make up for lost chances.

Is it the same as really having been there? Of course not. We know too much now, including the ending (which, on that night, was merely three months off).

Still, Alexis J. Roston gives us a poignant sense of how it might have been. There’s something feline in her whole performance — purring through her songs, arranging gardenias in her hair like a preening kitten, lapping up whiskey as if it were a saucer of cream.

The Kranzberg theater could never be mistaken for a dive bar, but its small proportions set an aptly intimate mood that director Leda Hoffmann and lighting designer Patrick Huber emphasize. The vocalist even makes eye contact with members of the audience, drawing us in still more.

Roston won a Chicago’s Jeff Award for her performance in “Lady Day.” (Audra McDonald won a Tony Award for the role on Broadway, which she reprised on HBO. Playwright Lanie Robertson wrote a terrific role for the artist who can sing it.)

Roston glides through a gorgeous set that includes Holiday’s signature songs — “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” — with her distinctive, instrumental-style phrasing. But there are many more numbers as well, all of them generously laced with anecdotes.

When she talks about her first marriage, we realize she still loves Sonny, who introduced her to drugs. When she talks about her humiliations traveling with the white Artie Shaw Orchestra, she seems much more angry than hurt (and stronger than she does at any other moment).

One reason she’s not strong, of course, is heroin. Her accompanist, Jimmy Powers (Abdul Hamid Royal, who is also the show’s music director), darts anxious glances at her. He tries coaxing her to sing something upbeat, something to make her feel better.

A caring, canny presence, he follows her backstage when she stumbles out in the middle of a song. There, he finds what he presumably expected.

Powell and the other musicians (Kaleb Kirby on drums, Benjamin Wheeler on bass) entertain the audience until Holiday returns, nodding and mumbling. One of her long white gloves is carelessly rolled down, revealing the marks of a needle.

For those of us in the audience, that terrible gesture predicts the future, even as Holiday defiantly sings “T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” And Roston persuades us that Billie Holiday, known as Lady Day, really felt that way.

But it’s not how she felt when she took her first job as a child, doing odd jobs in a “sporting house.” She didn’t mind the work, she explains, because she loved listening to the records the women played.

She knew then that she wanted to sing, “with a feeling like Louie’s and Bessie’s big sound.” (Photos of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Artie Shaw and other artists decorate the wall behind her.)

In time, she realized that she didn’t have a big voice like Smith’s — but she found a voice of her own. And in spite of the world’s injustices and in spite of her own demons, she found a way to fill that voice to the brim with feelings.