BWW Review: Lady Day AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at Rep Stage in Columbia Is Just Dazzling
Just imagine going to a nightclub today and getting the chance to see the iconic Billie Holiday (also known as "Lady Day") perform, as she did in 1959. Well, you now have that chance thanks to the Rep Stage in Columbia as they bring her talent to life. Yes, Billie Holiday is alive and well and performing at Rep Stage.
I was fortunate to see LADY DAY at Baltimore's Center Stage in 1993 starring the great Pamela Isaacs who later starred in THE LIFE on Broadway.
It finally came to Broadway in 2014 with Audra McDonald in the lead where she won her sixth Tony Award.
When Rep Stage announced they would be producing this great work as part of their 25th anniversary season I has such great anticipation of seeing it again. And I am happy to report that this a show that should not be missed. Director Danielle A. Drakes and Musical Director Will Lewis III (also on piano) are responsible for this incredible evening of great entertainment.
The Rep Stage theater has been transformed into a cabaret with tables and faux candles on top to make one truly believe they are in Philadelphia in 1959 to witness one of the last concerts by "Lady Day" (Holiday's nickname). The only thing missing is the thick smoke that used to always accompany these kind of venues. I was told an attempt to provide liquid refreshment was attempted without success which truly would have made for an exceptional experience.
On the small stage are three musicians: Bassist Gary Richardson, Drummer Evander W. McLean, and the pianist Lewis who also plays the role of Holiday's friend and announcer Jimmy Powers. He does his best to make sure the audience should not be worried about Holiday not continuing to perform due to obvious physical and mental instability. The terrific sound design is by Mark Smedley.
There is exceptional lighting by Jay Herzog who uses various hues and types of spots to add to the atmosphere.
But it is the amazing Celeste Jones who imbues her performance as the great Billie Holiday with sparkle and flair. She is mesmerizing in her portrayal.
Jones arrives on stage wearing a striking white floor length satin gown with lace and crystals in the front, and white gloves up to her elbows (great costume design by Ben Kress). Later in the show she will don her familiar flower in her hair, a white gardenia. She sings 14 numbers into a vintage microphone from the era. (I love the poster of the show.)
Not only does Jones master the incredible music with her mellifluous voice when she sings such amazing numbers as "God Bless The Child", "Don't Explain" and the haunting "Strange Fruit", as the evening progresses you witness her progressively succumb to alcohol and drugs when her arms become limb and she begins to shake. For many in The Audience (i)'m sure they may be hearing for the first time what it was like for a Black performer. She relates she was forced to sit on the band's bus while performing with the Artie Shaw orchestra until it was her time to perform. She discusses the racism in a restaurant kitchen when she needed to use a rest room. She reminisces about life as drug addict, being jailed, being abused by her husband, and the trials and tribulations she endured. It truly is an awe-inspiring story and Jones is equal to the task. You can see at the end of the evening she is drained.
This is indeed an award-winning type of performance. Do not miss it.
No programs are given out until after the show to make the feeling like you are actually in a nightclub. You have no idea what songs will be sung and who will be appearing in the show.
There is a pre show lecture Sat. November 18 at 12:30 p.m. entitled "Baltimore Jazz" moderated by Lisa A. Wild in the Monteabaro Recital Hall prior to the matinee. There is also a post-show discussion after the Nov. 17 performance.
Holiday has a particular connection with Baltimore where she was brought up and performed. There is even a statue of her at the corner of Lafayette and Pennsylvania Avenues close to the theaters she performed in like the Royal. The statue was initially dedicated in 1985 and rededicated in 2009 when the base of the statue which initially was censored was restored to its original form.
LADY DAY continues in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performance Arts Center on the campus of Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD. until Nov. 18. For tickets, call 443-518-1500 or visit www.repstage.org. They also have performances on Thursday evenings for $10.
Next up at Rep Stage is ALL SHE MUST POSSESS by Susan McCully and Directed by Rep Stage Producing Artistic Director Joseph Ritsch about the famous Cone sisters who are responsible for the world famous Cone Collection of impressionist paintings at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It will run Feb. 8, 2018 to Feb. 25, 2018.
THIS AND THAT
Set your DVR's for Friday nights as "Great Performances" on PBS will be presenting some great theatre broadcasts.
This Friday night, November 11, 2017 at 9 p.m. there is a repeat of "In the Heights : Chasing Broadway Dreams". This is a fabulous program about the making of the musical. (Streaming at pbs.org/).
On Nov. 17 at 9 p.m. do not miss the broadcast of the play INDECENT. I saw this remarkable play on Broadway and it is terrific.
On Nov. 24 at 9 p.m. is "Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn - The Broadway Musical".
And in December, look for "Hamilton's America" about the making of the hit musical.
And don't forget the Broadway shows to be seen on NBC and CBS during their coverage of the New York Thanksgiving Day Parade.