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

Co-production with Ebony Repertory Theatre

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

"Lady it's time....No I told you I can't do it!"

"You can only get to where you're at by where you've been..."

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a play with music written by Lanie Robertson and this production is directed by Wren T. Brown. The musical premiered in 1986 in Atlanta, Georgia and its story recounts some events of Billie Holiday's life leading up to this performance at Emerson's four months shy of her death in 1959.

Emerson's is a small bar in South Philadelphia and the time is a midnight performance by Lady Day. Set to the backdrop of a piano center stage and a few cocktail tables around the space, we relive some events of Ms. Holiday's life as told through stories found deep in her memory but living on the surface as if they just happened yesterday.

The play was produced off-Broadway in 1986, in Hollywood in 1987, and in Connecticut in 2005. Finally making its transfer to Broadway in 2014 with Audra McDonald starring as the stories centralized character. Only planned for limited 10 week engagement the show was extended, and closed in October of 2014. Audra went on to receive her 6th Tony Award for her portrayal as Lady Day, winning in all four categories including Best Actress. The Broadway production was also filmed for HBO with McDonald as Lady Day and premiered in 2016, Audra went on to receive an Emmy nomination for her work on the piece.

With more than a dozen musical numbers pulled from Holiday's songbook, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a feast for the ears for any avid Billie Holiday fan. With number such as "When a Woman Loves a Man," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "God Bless the Child," and "Strange Fruit," there is something for everyone who appreciates her music. Even for those who may not be as familiar, hearing these tunes is like reconnecting with a long-lost friend, or wrapping yourself in a warm blanket and letting the soothing sounds wash over you. Imagine sitting in a dark bar at a corner table sipping scotch on the rocks or bourbon neat, and smoking a cigar this is the essence of the beautiful creation in which this story unfolds.

In Co-Production with The Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill comes to freeFall Theatre, and what a marvelous production they have brought with them. At its center, we meet Karole Forman as the incomparable Billie Holiday, and magnificent work is achieved here. From the exceptional quality of her vocal stylings to the expert attention paid to costuming and hair, you would think Billie Holiday was re-incarnated before your eyes for this magical evening of song. There is a moment towards the end where Gardenias, which was Billie's favorite flower, end up in her hair and the light hits her just right as they fade out, and you could've been looking in a mirror. From the magic at that moment, you feel her wounded heart, and see right into her soul and it truly is captivating till the very end. She embodies Billie Holiday from vocal delivery to mannerisms and would give even the likes of Andra Day a run for her money. Perfect in fashion and gravitas Karole Foreman's turn as Billie Holiday is Masterful work here, and one that should be witnessed firsthand.

Our other player in the tale is Billie's piano player Jimmy Powers played by Damon Carter. who also serves as Musical Director for the production. His smooth stylings on the piano are unmatched here. He hits every note and every riff with exceptional ease. There is a moment where Billie disappears briefly and he plays an instrumental number entitled Blues Break that could have received its own standing ovation. I think the interesting part about his role here is not just his piano playing, but how at the moment he was the entire time. There are moments in the show in which Billie's character becomes increasingly intoxicated and like a light guiding a ship safely to shore, he forges on ahead often changing musical numbers at the drop of a hat. She would break into a story and all of a sudden cut into song and there would be an immediate change in pace from what Jimmy was playing before. His back and forth with Billie is beautiful work here, and something to be witnessed.

Technically beautiful Ebony Repertory Theatre's production of Lady Day is a stunning masterpiece. From the simple and functional set design to the mood inducing lighting, to the exceptional costume design it has it all. Wren T. Brown steers a strong and steady ship and this production plunges the audience headfirst into the time period of the story. Wren says it best in his Director's Notes, "Sixty years after her death, at a time in America when race, gender, and the opioid crisis are being discussed loudly on a daily basis, Billie Holiday's life and career are a great example of what it means to not just survive but triumph in the face of lifelong abuse and struggle." I for one couldn't have said it better myself, and this truly sums up a beautiful evening.

One thing I must point out as I pondered on the car ride home following the evenings' performance. In this world climate, we currently reside, do stories such as these that premiered so long ago still find relevance today? With all of the more recent revivals being done on Broadway and in film, do stories of a time in which a way of living and a way of speaking are different than the current Social-Media driven era in which we live still hold their ground? A recent review of another revival that is currently on Broadway makes light of issues while discussing the nature and context of the script in relation to our world today versus when the said show first premiered. I will admit there are times in which Lady Day made me wonder, are we reaching the audiences that truly need to hear these stories, and are we doing it in the right manner at a time in which it's needed more than ever. How do those who didn't live in a world outside of Social Media and Viral Memes relate to a story that happened before that became the norm?

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a must-see Master-Class of pure brilliance in story-telling and song. At the helm two very fine performers who give it their all and as an audience we bear witness to the gravitas. Let us take a trip back to yesteryear, for I hear Billie is taking the stage for a final time at Emerson's and you want to see her in all her glory. Our friends at freeFall Theatre and Ebony Repertory Theatre invite us to experience the magic of storytelling, recounting the life of one truly remarkable "Lady," and for that I'm forever grateful to be in the audience and experience this exceptionally beautiful and stunning production. Visit freefalltheatre.com for tickets. I for one am excited about the Co-Production, as was done a few seasons ago with Hippodrome and Lone Star Spirits, and look forward to many more in the future. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is on-stage through April 24th, and you do not want to miss an evening with Billie Holiday, for it is truly magical.

"Somebody saying they're better than you don't make it so..."

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz



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