BWW Review: Accomplished and Raw Performance Centers LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at Jungle Theater
Twin Cities native Thomasina Petrus and legendary director Marion McClinton have teamed up to mount a definitive production of this famous concert show about the great jazz singer Billie Holiday. The show is structured as a club performance late in Holiday's career in a small Philadelphia venue, after she was barred from performing in New York nightclubs due to multiple drug convictions. Her voice has lost some of its power and flexibility. She is worn out by a hard life of multiple childhood traumas, abusive lovers and subsequent addiction made even harder by the endemic racism in the United States. It's March 1959. Her heyday is well behind her. Death will come in a matter of months, when she is just 44.
Thus this demanding script requires a lead who is without vanity and who can really sing and really act. In Petrus, the Jungle Theater has won on all counts. Petrus has starred in multiple touring productions of this show; she knows it cold. This does not render her performance rote in any way. Rather, it has given her the courage and familiarity to go deep, to abandon pretence or showiness and dive into personal despair, display the woozy ravages of heroin and alcohol, and strip the varnish off our national shame of racism with vivid stories from her life.
Petrus delivers the great songs in character, though doing so requires her to roughen up her own sweet sound. There's a moment of relief in Act 1 when she gets to do Billie singing Bessie Smith, when she can work at a faster tempo and with more verve. Mostly, though, she restrains herself to stay inside Billie's late sound: ravaged, narrow in terms of pitch, far from rigid rhythmically, remarkably improvisational, and absolutely centered emotionally. Act I ends, as it must, with "Strange Fruit," a crucial song that should be played in every high school US history class, and that cannot be followed by anything else. Act 2 ends with an uptempo final number, following the end of the club set, that allows Petrus to bring the audience back up from grievous sorrow as she introduces the musicians who have been backing her all night.
That combo was certainly solid but wasn't entirely tight on opening night for the media, when I saw the show, perhaps because the talented Dale Alexander was sitting in on drums for the listed player, Kevin Washington, and so was likely working on limited rehearsal. Ron Evaniuk is on bass, and Thomas A. West serves as music director, playing piano and the role of Jimmy Powers, Billie's last accompanist and minder. He's a treat on keys, with a light touch and a particularly nimble right hand.
It falls to West as Powers to try and keep Billie on track. He has a kind of courtly awkwardness that makes sense when he speaks to the audience, attempting to put the best possible face on her disappearance back stage to shoot up. The chemistry between Billie and Powers is believable, as he coaxes her to sing more and she makes it clear she is just done with niceties of any kind. She's pretty much at the end of her rope, and she knows it, but this does not obscure her musicality nor her smarts.
This is a slice of history jazz buffs need to know. And if you care about the realities of race relations in America now, or the way in which popular music reveals the fissures in our society, or if you care about issues like mass incarceration or addiction and how society has attempted to manage them, you should be in the audience for this show. Much of what straight-talking Billie says rings as relevant to our current dilemmas. This production runs through June 24 at the Jungle.
Photo credit: Dan Norman