Febuary 8, 2006
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" (written by Lanie Robertson, musical arrangement by Danny Holgate) opened at New Stage Theatre last week, and I was lucky enough to catch the opening-night performance. The show, directed by Patrick Benton, depicts Billie Holiday late in her career, when she has returned to Philadelphia to perform at one of her old haunts. Throughout the course of the revue-style show, Holiday sings some of her most famous songs and comments on the often stormy experiences of her life as an artist, a drug addict and a woman in love.
Most jazz scholars seem to agree that Holiday had a tumultuous upbringing. Her mother was very young and unmarried when she gave birth to Holiday, and her father abandoned his new family shortly thereafter. By the early 1930s, Holiday was singing in clubs in Harlem, where talent scout John Hammond discovered her. Under his direction, she began singing in more venues and recording with leading jazz musicians. Despite Holiday's growing professional success, she developed a host of personal problems, including destructive relationships and drugs. She was jailed for drug possession in 1947. "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" is set in March 1959, just four months before the legendary singer's death.
Gloria Jackson Winters plays the role of Billie Holiday, and the show rests squarely on her shoulders. She is the only performer with a significant speaking role in the production (although a smooth piano accompaniment does underscore her entire performance). "Lady Day" is a one-act show, with no intermission, making it even more of a challenge to perform. A production with so little plot requires an actor with the stamina to capture and hold the attention of the audience. I thought the show started a little haltingly; Winters threw away some of her early lines, using the same delivery method repeatedly. However, within 10 minutes, she had found more variety both in her delivery and its source, powering through the production with an ultimately satisfying performance. Her renditions of "Gimme a Pig Foot" and "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness" were wonderful and light, but I found her deft interpretation of Holiday classics "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child" the most inspired in the production.
By the end of the show, Holiday's addictions begin to overcome her, and Winters depicts a struggling, broken artist with poignant weaknesses.
For a show without much set dressing, Winters herself made for beautiful decoration. Thanks to veteran costume designer Mary Anise, she was costumed and groomed with the care of a bygone era, slinking on stage in a champagne-colored satin dress, killer shoes, elegant white gloves and Holiday's trademark gardenias. (I definitely plan on stealing some of these wardrobe ideas for future formal events.) Warm, meltingly smooth lighting, designed by Jim Pettis, also made a moody contribution to the atmosphere. On the canvas of Winters' face, red light eased its way into golden tones, later slipping into shadows of green. None of the transitions was harsh or even very noticeable until they were complete. Coupled with non-toxic smoke (which lent a bar-like haze to the air), the result was evocative and intoxicating.
Harlan Zackery Jr. does a fine job as both the music director of the production and as Jimmy Powers, Holiday's accompanist. Zackery is a member of the music faculty at Jackson State University and is also associate director of music at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church.
People who make a living in the business of live stage productions seem to concur that working with either live animals or children on stage is a huge risk. No amount of rehearsing will ensure the desired outcome, but the risk has paid off with this production. Local chihuahua Giorgio Armani (this is the dog's real name, I kid you not) makes a brief appearance as Pepi, Holiday's pet dog. Who knows what could be next for this rising star? I see dog food endorsement deals in his future!
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" continues through Sunday, Feb. 12, with curtain times at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $22, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups. Call 601-948-3531 or visit the theater's online site.
Whoa. This show was outstanding! Saw it last night, and loved Ms. Jackson Winters in the lead role. And JoAnne and I giggled our faces off over the little dog. You only have a couple hours, but it you want something good to do this afternoon, and there are still tickets, get yourself over to New Stage for a treat.