BWW Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL at Arts West is a Study in Nuance and Subtleties.
Lady Day at Arts West is a study of nuance and subtleties. It is the story of Billie Holiday. Her life and music come to you through song and stories, music and monologues, told in a nightclub setting from Holiday near the end of her life. Just like her life, the show moves through humor, inspiration, tragedy, and triumph.
They say you never really know what battles someone may be fighting, and nothing could be truer of Billie Holiday. Fame and fortune could not erase her past. In the show she unpacks her demons one by one and exposes them to the light, never flinching or shrinking away. She tells her stories with the confidence of someone who will not let the past rule them but knows the sadness of it will stay with her forever. Mother-daughter relationships are interesting, and Billie's relationship with her own mother, the Duchess was more than a little complicated. With brutal honesty, Billie pulls back layer after layer exposing her true self, warts and all.
The show also recounts Billie's adventures traveling with the band and the struggles of being the only woman in the group. The struggles were magnified when traveling in the South during the era of Jim Crow laws and strict segregation. Despite such serious subject matter, the stories contain many laughs and charms. Her ability to retain her dignity and poise through it all is amazing.
Felicia Loud's portrayal of Lady Day is at once fierce and relaxed. She seems completely comfortable in her skin and in her stories. Attaching to the universal truths of struggle, love and loss, Loud connects with both the spirit of Holiday and with the audience. Musical Director, Michael Owcharuk, has worked sheer magic in helping Loud to capture Holiday's distinctive voice. The trembling, the playfulness, the tonality, it's all there. The songs were not just lyrics to Holiday, but truths. Loud shows us all the pain that one bears when one sings the truth in "Strange Fruit" which so eloquently tells of the horrors and exploitation of racism in America. Loud (as Holiday) gets even more personal when she sings a heartbreaking rendition of "God Bless the Child."
The stage and lighting are set to emulate an intimate nightclub setting. It has all the feels of a night in Philadelphia save for the sticky, humid air. Loud is joined on stage by Darrius Willrich as her pianist, Jimmy Powers. His masterful performance is not limited to the piano keys but also in how he guides Holiday through the show, keeping her wandering mind and stories from losing control. As the show begins its descent toward the end, you can almost feel Holiday coming unhinged. Stories become derailed on tangents. Her voice falters, and even her once perfectly presented appearance comes undone. It's as if you are watching time at work, bolstered with the power of tragedy, injustice, and loss.
The show slips into its ending like a light being extinguished, much like the ending of Holiday's much too short life. It will never be a powerhouse of a show commanding multiple tours simultaneously and ticket re-sales at triple the price, but it has its place. Lady Day holds its space with the same dignity that Holiday carried herself. Her story is important, not just of her success but of her perseverance. Linn Manuel Miranda wrote, "who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" I, for one, am grateful that Lanie Robertson chose to tell Lady Day's story. I'm even more grateful that Valerie Curtis-Newton and Arts West decided to share it with us.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is playing at Arts West through July 8th. For more information or tickets, contact www.artswest.org.