Max & Louie Brings Complex, Compelling “Lady Day” to the Stage

Snoop MK – Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts, February 21, 2017

Billie Holiday was an undisputed legend of jazz music. Since she died in 1959, there are many people today who have had no opportunity to see her in concert. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, currently being presented by Max & Louie Productions, gives audiences the closest chance they can get to seeing Holiday perform live. Through a remarkably complex performance from its leading performer, attenders are given a window into Holiday’s life and music, simultaneously showing the greatness and the struggles of her too-short life.

The Billie Holiday we see here, as portrayed by the remarkably talented Alexis J. Roston, is the Lady Day who was nearing the end of her career, as well as of her life. Taking place in March, 1959–four months before she died–the play has the conceit of a concert. Introduced by Holiday’s small band led by pianist Jimmy Powers (Abdul Hamid Royal), Holiday is unpredictable but enthusiastic at first, singing a string of jazz tunes and sharing anecdotes from her life, some humorous and others poignant, sad, and even disturbing. This is a Billie Holiday whose greatness as a singer is still readily evident, although her weariness and decline is also clearly on display. It’s an incredibly strong, richly nuanced performance from Roston, who sounds like Holiday but comes across as a fully realized character rather than a simple impression or tribute. Songs like the poignant “God Bless the Child” and the devastating “Strange Fruit” are not simply sung well by Roston–they are vividly set up in the stories she tells, as she remembers her mother, her first husband who introduced her to heroin, and her experiences performing in the highly segregated and hostile Southern states. Sipping whiskey throughout, Holiday ranges from lucid to near-incoherent, but that voice still rings out when she sings, showing us the talent that made her a legend even when, at this moment in time, the best years of her singing career are behind her.

Although the show is primarily about Holiday, and Roston’s superb performance, she is well supported by Royal as her supportive but occasionally exasperated pianist, Jimmy, and by Kaleb Kirby (drums) and Benjamin Wheeler (Bass), Jimmy’s bandmates. The set, by Dunsi Dai, is a vividly realistic recreation of a 1950’s Philadelphia jazz bar, and Dorothy Jones’s costumes outfit Roston and her band in appropriate period attire. Patrick Huber’s lighting is also especially effective in setting and maintaining the mood and concert atmosphere of the production, with excellent work from sound designer Casey Hunter as well. The music is well-represented by Roston’s excellent voice as well as Royal’s strong music direction and the band’s top-notch playing.

There are many memorable songs here, from “I Wonder Where Love Has Gone” and “When a Woman Loves a Man” to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and the emotional “Deep Song” that closes the show. What we see here in this stunningly realized production is an artist at the end of her life, but with so much of her talent on display even through the more difficult moments. Roston especially is a revelation, and this is a production not to be missed especially for fans of classic jazz music and of Lady Day herself.