Review | Lady Day At The Emerson Bar And Grill: gritty and translucent

The Jungle Theater, through June 24

Thomas A. West and Thomasina Petrus in LADY DAY AT THE EMERSON BAR AND GRILL. Photo by Dan Norman.

Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill is a day-in-the-life story of singer Billie Holiday, a.k.a. Lady Day. It is more accurate to say the play is a night-in-the-life story of this popular and singularly talented, jazz singer as the action of the play takes place over one evening in the Emerson Bar in Philadelphia, Holiday’s home town. It is the late 1950’s towards the end of Miss Holiday’s life.

It isn’t easy to do but the Jungle Theatre’s production of Lady Day comes close to a translucent flawlessness with Thomasina Petrus as Billie Holiday and musicians Ron Evaniuk on bass and Dale Alexander (sitting in for Kevin Washington on preview night) on drums. Thomas A. West on piano takes the only other speaking role in the play as Jimmy Powers (as well as being music director for the production). West’s deft playing is fine to hear and watch. Note: if your seats are to the right side of the audience you will get a better view of his artistry on the piano.

Bringing an historic character to life, especially one who’s signature voice we are familiar with and whose story we have a passing knowledge of has its own set of pitfalls. The play begins as the three band members do an opening medley. They are enveloped in the dilapidated but cozy glow of a nightclub stage that had seen better times (Joel Sass, Set Designer). Under Marion McClinton’s direction, Holiday first appears in the wing wearing a full- length fur coat, clasping a silver cigarette holder. A nice start, but it’s when she begins to sing her first song that we know Petrus inhabits Lady Day with such ease and honesty that the evening at the Emerson will be a fine one. Petrus inhabits her role with subtlety and resourcefulness even as she exhibits the slack jaw and nasal delivery we expect from Lady Day.

By any measure Holiday had a tough life both as a child and an adult. A harsh upbringing, racial discrimination, drugs and time in prison mark out her life events. Holiday’s tough spirit and love of music are revealed as she relates her life story between songs. This is not an evening of tricked-up impersonation. Playwright Lanie Robertson mixes humor and pathos and doesn’t try to tell every moment of Billie Holiday’s life. The events she touches on are handled with enough detail and emotional content to make the play feel fully fleshed out.

The songs covered in the course of the evening range from the familiar God Bless the Child and Strange Fruit to Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer). Near the end of the show Holiday takes a break back stage to shoot up. She reappears in a black dress and dark glasses and sings Tain’t Nobody’s Biz Ness but My Own. From start to finish, Petrus has the talent and interior grit to transform herself in to a credible and touching Billie Holiday.

 

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