BWW Review: Max & Louie Productions' Compelling LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL
Playwright Lanie Robertson's alternately harrowing and exhilarating work, LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL, is an intriguing take on Billie Holiday's final performance in 1959. Holiday was a jazz singer who could captivate an audience with her unique vocal style, which combined elements of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, two performers she idolized growing up. She had a storied career and tumultuous life that was further undone by drug and alcohol addictions that would leave her dead from heart failure and cirrhosis of the liver. But, her legacy is undeniable, and this play allows us to see her talent, as well as the demons that haunted her. Max & Louie Productions is presenting a superlative production of this work which is smartly crafted and brilliantly performed.
In a small bar in North Philadelphia Billie Holiday performs her final concert. Throughout the show Billie interjects bits and pieces from her all too short, but thoroughly packed, life. It's not a pretty story, filled with painful and sordid moments that are certainly unsettling. Being raped at a very young age, hooking up with the wrong kind of man, and indulging in alcohol and heroin, are just some of things she talks about as she sings and reminisces. What made her special, and an absolute musical icon, was the intense way she could convey her feelings and personal philosophies through her vocal performances, even when singing what she considered to be inferior material. While her voice was a bit ravaged from her abuses by 1959, there were still glimpses of transcend beauty apparent.
Alexis J. Roston completely inhabits Billie Holiday as a performer and character. Roston really captures her unique sound, and numbers that Holiday, at that point in time, hated to sing, such as, "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit," are amazingly powerful statements. In fact, each song seems to have been specifically chosen to reveal an aspect of Holiday's life, or point of view. Roston seems to be aging and drifting slowly into an alcoholic, and later narcotic, haze, as the show progresses and Holiday becomes more unpredictable in her behavior. It's a nice way to showcase Billie's gifts as well as her emotional baggage, and it makes for a compelling experience. The final number, "Deep Song," demonstrates this in just a couple of minutes, as a light from overhead illuminates her face, and Roston as Holiday is suddenly thrown back to a time when Billie could mesmerize and delight an audience with her natural exuberance. And then there's complete darkness, and reality sets in. There are no false moments here for Roston; she delivers a marvelous performance.
Adbul Hamid Royal is perfectly ill at ease and nervous throughout as Jimmy Powers, Billie's music director/pianist. And that's what he should reflect given the uncertain circumstances his character is dealing with. Royal is also a gifted musician with an impressive resume, and he conducts the onstage trio with considerable skill. Kaleb Kirby (drums) and Benjamin Wheeler (bass) provide a steady, tasteful, pulse to these classic songs. But they all really get a chance to show their chops during "Blues Break," which takes place as Billie leaves the stage to get a quick fix.
Leda Hoffmann's direction is well conceived, guiding the cast through the dramatic and occasional humorous bits that pop up, while allowing the music, and Roston, to shine and take center stage. Dunsi Dai conjures up the right slightly seedy atmosphere with his scenic design, while Patrick Huber's sharp lighting scheme enhances each special moment that occurs. Dorothy Jones provides a costume that conjures up Lady Day in her prime; a striking imaging in white.
Max & Louie Productions has given us a true gem of a show with their production of LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL, and it continues through March 4, 2017 at the Kranzberg Arts Center.
Photo Credit: John Lamb