Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill
By Lanie Robertson
Directed by Bill Fennelly
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
Deidrie Henry in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Photo by Bill Brymer.
How serendipitous is it that as I sat down to write my review of the stunning Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, currently in production at Actors Theatre, that U2’s “Angel of Harlem” would start playing on the radio in the background? Yes, Bono’s Angel is Billie Holiday.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is as if you are attending a show where Billie Holiday sings about Billie Holiday. Born Eleanora Fagin (her lineage is part Irish), she grew up in Philadelphia in the 1920’s listening to and imitating musical greats Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. She would perform in local jazz clubs, eventually joining her mother (Sadie – aka The Duchess) in Harlem and performing in nightclubs and bars, primarily for tips, under her stage name Billie Holiday. Through her work with Benny Goodman she was thrust into more and more projects that built her repertoire and her star status higher and higher. She began touring with the likes of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, which was a double feat, being a black female. Through her short life she recorded enduring music standards that are still played and listened to over half a century later. To say that she was a superstar of the Jazz and Blues world would be an understatement. She was Jazz and she lived the Blues.
Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill takes us to one of Billie’s last performances before she died in July of 1959 at the young age of 44. The set is an intimate cabaret/piano bar complete with high top tables adorned with short, flickering candles and ashtrays/matches strewn throughout the place. On the stage sit Lady Day’s talented trio of Drummer Chris King, Bassist Tyrone Wheeler and Pianist/Musical Director Jimmy Powers (Abdul Hamid Royal). With the instruments in place and microphones both on the piano and a stand-alone, one gets the feel of the closeness of this piece and place.
As the music begins, Lady Day (Deidrie Henry) is hesitant to come out of her dressing room and only does so after some coaxing from Mr. Powers. You can hear her hesitancy in the audience. When she agrees and makes her way to the center of the stage, she is a paler, more fragile version of her younger self. A hard life has taken hold of her and it shows. Some disc jockeys of the time even took to referring to Ms. Holiday as Ms. Yesterday. Wearing what looked to be more of a wedding dress than a recital gown with elbow length fingerless gloves, Billie holds gardenias and a glass of vodka tight, takes a sip and begins the evening with “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone”. Upon hearing the first note, the question of how Ms. Henry would bring the musical giant that was Billie Holiday to light was answered – so far so good.
Throughout the evening the audience was treated to classic Billie Holiday songs woven with expletive filled stories and anecdotes from Holiday’s life. The segues that led into some of Ms. Holiday’s best known songs, such as “God Bless the Child” and “When a Woman Loves a Man”, were revelatory and brought deeper understanding. For myself, the stories leading up to, and the singing of “Strange Fruit” wholly entranced me.
Before long, Lady Day was getting a little unsure, a little sick, and maybe a little drunk. When she walked off stage, Jimmy Powers and the band played a sharp jazz piece. Mr. Powers coaxed Lady Day back on stage, joined by her dog Pepe and looking a bit disheveled. As she continued to speak she became more and more incoherent: slurring words, jumbling sentences, mistaking Jimmy for her ex-husband Sonny. By the time she delved into “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do”, her gloves were slipping a bit and you could see the results of her hard living lining her arm.
Although Ms. Holiday slipped further and further into her haze she managed to deliver a bit more “What a Little Bit of Moonlight Can Do” before ending with “Deep Song”.
All design work fit with this production: lighting, set, sound, and costumes. They worked in great cohesion to make you feel as if you were in this little run-down club and were actually there with Lady Day herself. The direction was fantastic, except that I am not sure if the Bingham Theater showed the material to its best effect. There were several times that a facial or hand expression would be made that absolutely enhanced the moment, but some of the audience got to see it, some didn’t.
The musicians were absolutely amazing, all of them deeply rooted in Jazz and Blues styles that added a great sense of reality to the evening. As for Ms. Henry, she did her homework. While, to my ear, she didn’t have quite the timbre that Lady Day did, She was excellent in her portrayal of what Lady Day did sound like in her declining years: still a powerhouse but with a little less ferocity. Ms. Henry brought Lady Day to life in a performance that I won’t soon forget.
Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill
January 3-29, 2017
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.