Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Mark Bretz – Ladue News, February 21, 2017

Story: Legendary vocalist Billie Holiday saunters onto the stage at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia near midnight one night in March 1959. It’s about three months before ‘Lady Day,’ as she was called by her friend and tenor saxophone great Lester Young, would die from cirrhosis of the liver at age 44.

With a sly grin on her face, she joins her musical accompanist Jimmy Powers, who is seated at the piano and leads a trio that also features a drummer and bass player. Dressed in a blindingly white gown with matching white gloves, Lady Day launches into a series of tunes which she regularly interrupts with banter for the small but appreciative audience.

She talks to them about “The Duchess,” her nickname for her mother and a woman who has had a vital influence on her daughter. Lady Day recounts her love of singing from when she was a little girl, when she was known by her real name of Eleanora Fagan, and how she once weighed 200 pounds. She talks about the man with whom she fell in love, a person her mother held in low regard as did most others of Lady Day’s family and friends.

No matter. Lady Day loved him despite his dubious ways. She also notes off-handedly that she was raped when she was 10 years old, but that it wasn’t even the worst thing to ever happen to her. She’s lived a turbulent life, but has soldiered on, admiring the career of black singer Bessie Smith as she molded her own artistic ability to improvise jazz singing.

She’s continued to perform, even in her days in Artie Shaw’s band when, as a black woman, she was forced to eat dinner in the kitchen of Southern restaurants but not allowed to use a restroom.

She tells us she’s been banned from playing in her favorite clubs in New York City while she drinks freely throughout the evening from a bottle of booze she keeps close by. Long-suffering Jimmy leads her into tunes as best he can, and then Lady Day takes over with powerful, persuasive riffs that reveal her considerable innate talent. Time, however, is running out on Lady Day.

Highlights: Alexis J. Roston delivers a bravura performance as the immensely gifted but tragically cursed Holiday, a singer whom Frank Sinatra once said was “the greatest single musical influence on me.” Director Leda Hoffman, musical director Abdul Hamid Royal and Roston reprise their efforts from sold-out runs in Louisville and Milwaukee in moving and expert fashion in Max & Louie Production’s fascinating presentation.

Other Info: Performed in one act and about 90 minutes, playwright Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill has the feel of a documentary-style cabaret. With the setting shortly before Holiday’s death, Roston excels both in interpreting Holiday’s free-wheeling jazz vocal improvisations and in depicting the troubled singer describing her turbulent life both in public and off-stage.

Roston portrayed Holiday in an award-winning production by the Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago. Later she took the show on the road into Milwaukee and Louisville along with fellow cast member and musical director Abdul Hamid Royal as Jimmy, under the loving direction of Leda Hoffmann. That trio is the moving force in Max & Louie’s current presentation at Kranzberg Arts Center.

Royal and his band mates, namely drummer Kaleb Kirby and Ben Wheeler on bass, provide captivatingly precise musical support for Roston, who can shape a song much in the style of the original Billie Holiday herself. It’s also worth noting the patience exhibited by the band during Billie’s many meanderings.

Beyond the music and singing, though, Roston inhabits Holiday’s persona, conveying the singer’s losing battle with alcohol and drugs with increasingly slurred speech and slovenly behavior that reaches its nadir when Billie returns to the stage with one glove rolled down, revealing hideous needle marks.

Dunsi Dai’s scenic design smartly lays out the cozy confines of the Emerson nightclub, utilizing Patrick Huber’s incisive lighting design throughout which puts the spotlight on Billie’s singing and story-telling moments in accentuated fashion. Dorothy Jones’ costumes reflect the times not only in Billie’s gown but also in the handsome threads adorning the musicians.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is at times theater, cabaret, biography and American history lesson. At all times it’s both entertaining and provocative, telling a tragic story from its proper musical perspective.