Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at Cygnet Theatre

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL is playing at Cygnet Theatre through February 18th, 2024.

By: Feb. 02, 2024
Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at Cygnet Theatre

Billie Holiday is a superstar jazz musician though often her tremendous talent is sometimes eclipsed by the more sensational exploits of her life. LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL, now playing at Cygnet Theatre through February 18th, invites you to a cozy neighborhood bar, to enjoy the vocal stylings of the marvelous Lady Day in 1959 and learn more about her life in this intimate portrait of a gifted jazz musician.

The premise of the play by Lanie Robertson is that the audience sees Billie Holiday (Karole Foreman) in one of the last performances of her life.  She is accompanied by her pianist Jimmy Powers (Damon Carter) who tries his best to keep Billie on track in life and music.

The audience overhears Billie's protest about going out on stage, but as soon as Jimmy introduces her she takes center stage in her pristine white gown and gloves.  Her trademark flowers are on a table next to some decanters, and she seems to ramble and be slightly unfocused until she starts singing.

The show starts with a high frequency of songs interspersed with stories and funny asides.  Though as she pours herself tumbler after tumbler of alcohol, soon the ratio of stories to songs inverts, the polished performer becomes more rough, and traumatic moments are casually dropped into the conversation in passing.  There is humor as well, with a stand-out moment coming from a recollection of touring with Artie Shaw through the South.

This Lady Day is not just about an anguished life but also reflects the hard-working, street-wise, woman she was, who wasn’t afraid to fight for what she wanted.  However, some of her decisions seem foolishly optimistic, especially where they concern men and cost her dearly.

Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at Cygnet Theatre

Foreman has performed this role multiple times, and it shows in her beautifully controlled unraveling as the booze and the drugs, and the experiences of her life start to take their toll.  Forman has a lovely singing voice but does not try to imitate Lady Day directly.  Instead, her personification is through Holiday’s signature manipulation of phrasing and tempo, and the raspy quality of her voice. While her physicality suggests that Billie is not at her best, and starting to deteriorate.

The songs include  “God Bless The Child,” “Easy Living,” and more - but it’s the rendition of “Strange Fruit” that provides a truly powerful and emotional moment.  Carter as her trusty piano man Jimmy is a superb pianist, as well as a steady presence for Billie and the audience when things start to go off track.

Directed by Wren T. Brown, Billie comes into the audience, or talks directly to people from the stage to help facilitate that cabaret feel within the theatre. There is no shying away from the state Billie is in, but there is no tawdry celebration in it either. 

The nightclub scenic design by Edward E. Haybes Jr., lighting by Donna Ruzika, and Costumes by Kimberly DeShazo all create a sense of intimacy.  Sound design by Evan Eason allows the music, both vocal and piano to shine together beautifully.

Though one can quibble with the play focusing on this part of Holiday’s career instead of more accomplishments, these insights into her heartaches and struggles only add more depth to how beautifully they are expressed through her music.

How To Get Tickets 

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL is playing at Cygnet Theatre through February 18th, 2024.  For ticket and showtime information go to www.cygnettheatre.com  

Photo Credit: Karli Cadel




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