'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill' Triumphs
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Written by Lanie Robertson, Musical Arrangements by Danny Holgate, Directed by Spiro Veloudos, Musical Direction by Chauncey Moore, Set Design by Skip Curtiss, Costume Design by Mallory Frers, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Production Stage Manager Maureen Lane, Assistant Stage Manager Amanda Ostrow
Billie Holiday had a distinctive and instantly recognizable voice, full of emotion, pain, and vulnerability. Jacqui Parker sounds nothing like her, yet delivers a sensational and unsentimental interpretation of the late jazz singer near the end of her life in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. The intentional lack of mimicry allows Parker to bring her estimable vocals and acting chops to the role of a musical icon, evoking enough of Holiday's traits to rouse recognition, while creating a singularly compelling dramatic character who tells her story through the medium of song.
Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos directs this two-hander in collaboration with Musical Director Chauncey Moore and his team of gifted designers Skip Curtiss (Set), Karen Perlow (Lighting), and Mallory Frers (Costumes). Together, they have transformed The Lyric Stage Company into the dingy Philadelphia club, replete with atmospheric haze caught in the streams of dim light filtering down from the overhead spots. With exposed brick walls and accompanist Moore at an upright piano behind her, and four café tables with bistro chairs scattered around the floor in front of the stage, Parker conducts business at a standup microphone, but freely ambles from stage to table to upstage bar stool, grabbing a cocktail or cigarette along the way.
Most importantly, the audience is transported to the world that Billie lived in, where all the pressures and pain weighing her down are swept away, albeit temporarily, by the music. Lanie Robertson has not so much written a play, with all of the elements required by that definition, as he has re-created a moment in time when the singer was almost out of time, but still doing her thing. In between the musical numbers, the actress banters with her pianist Jimmy Powers (Moore), a tireless and devoted second banana, and regales the audience with tales of the ups and downs of her career, life, and loves. Whether seated in the first row or the last in the intimate Lyric house, the poignant stories and Parker's rendition of Holiday's classic tunes will reach out and grip you with their sorrow or wrap you in their embrace.
The fourteen selections from Holiday's songbook include three that she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog, Jr., including the most familiar "God Bless the Child;" an upbeat "Baby Doll" by Bessie Smith, one of Billie's great influences; and the chilling "Strange Fruit," based on a poem about a lynching. Deeply moved by the latter, Billie exits the stage, leaving Jimmy to cover for her while she takes a break. He fills the time by pounding out an impromptu boogie woogie until she pads back on stage, barefoot and carrying a small dog. It is obvious to everyone what she has done while out of the room, and the audience's subdued discomfort is as palpable as if Parker herself had shot up. All of the work she does to lay the groundwork of her character culminates in this scene where we fully feel the essence of Billie Holiday's life and struggle.
Perhaps the most fitting observation I can make about the Lyric production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is that it is clearly a labor of love. Veloudos is admittedly an aficionado of music of the era and had his sights set on this show with Parker in the lead for years. She and Moore have worked together before and that experience and a mutual trust result in a beautiful synergy between them. Dress them in period styles, put a gardenia in Billie's hair, and voilà - you're in 1959 Philadelphia. It is the final chapter of the life story of an amazing talent and this team lovingly and respectfully closes the book.