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Review: Lady Day and Her Demons

Portland Stage opens its 44th season with an intense production of Lanie Robertson's exploration of the tortured inner life of songstress Billie Holiday, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Essentially a ninety-minute dramatic monologue, the play with music is a virtuoso vehicle for the singer-actress in the title role. Portland Stage's attractive, expressive production captures all the pathos of Holliday's life, as well as the incomparable beauty of her music making.

Robertson's play deglamorizes the Holiday legend, stripping away the mythos and the melancholy of the misunderstood artist and replacing it, instead, with an unvarnished look at the abused, drug- and-alcohol-addicted, tough-talking but secretly vulnerable woman who made her way through the labyrinth of Jim Crow prejudice to become an iconic star, only to fall victim to her own inner demons - deep-seated insecurities, a desperate need for love, and a desire to anesthetize and blot out the memories of a harsh life. Through it all, Billie Holiday hangs on to music as her salvation, though as the play progresses, this life preserver is slipping away from her.

Director Kevin R. Free rightly focuses his work on helping Tracey Conyer Lee create her character. Given that the location is a small stage in a Philadelphia bar, the action is limited, and, indeed, a little repetitively static given the confines of the set, but the play comes alive in its musical moments. Music Director and pianist Gary Mitchell, Jr., playing Jimmy Powers, Holiday's accompanist and sympathetic handler, and bassist Ross Gallagher provide consummate accounts of Holiday's blues and jazz songs and jam for the audience pre-curtain and in a few interludes of the play.

Anita Stewart recreates effectively the ambiance of the historic Emerson's Tavern, where Holiday gave her last performances four months before her death. The dark space, decorated with slightly shabby red velvet curtains and dominated by a cramped round stage platform which projects into the audience, together with Byron Winn's atmospheric lighting design using warm yellows, oranges, pinks and a fair amount of backlighting, contributes to the feeling of smoky intimacy. Using a single standing microphone for Holiday's songs, Sound Designer Devin Bruton does a good job of reproducing the vintage acoustic of Holiday's voice, but when Lady Day is away from the microphone and speaking, the sound falls out of balance. The costumes, produced with assistance from Palm Beach Drama Works Costume Department based on the original designs by Leslye Menshouse, conjure up the iconic images of Holiday in white gown and gloves, flowers in hair.

While the musicians provide the foundation for the play and there is a small, show-stealing appearance by a terrier named Ollie as Holiday's little dog Pepi, the task of carrying the evening falls to Tracey Conyer Lee as Billie Holiday. An expressive vocalist who rekindles Holiday's tone and mannerisms with uncanny precision, Conyer Lee's real triumph is as an actress. In a perfectly calibrated performance she takes the audience through ninety-minutes of mounting intoxication and soul-baring, punctuated subtly by painful revelations and wrenching deliveries of the songs, most notably a searing account of "Strange Fruit."

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill sets the tone for Portland Stage's 2017-2018 season whose theme, according to Executive and Artistic Director Anita Stewart, is to "explore the person behind a stereotype or façade and see the world from a different perspective." That perspective is often harsh, uncomfortable, even depressing, but yet, in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill there is a glimmer of genius still to be seen in the pathetically unraveling and downward spiraling Holiday, and it is there in her music and the artist's soul that the play makes its impact.

Photo courtesy Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs from September 19 - October 5, 2017, at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207- 774-0466

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