“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a jukebox musical written by Lanie Robertson. The setting is a cabaret bar in South Philadelphia in March 1959 in which vocalist Billie Holiday performs with a jazz trio and tells stories about her life as she becomes increasingly intoxicated and incoherent. The play premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 1986. The same year, it opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard and then Westside Theatres with Lonette McKee. It finally made its Broadway debut at the Circle in the Square in 2014 with Audra McDonald in the leading role. The play garnered two Tony® Awards for best actress and sound design. The first Baltimore production was at Center Stage in 1993, directed by Broadway choreographer George Faison.
Ms. Renee portrayed Billie Holiday so realistically that the audience developed an almost immediate connection and sympathy for her character…an exceptional portrayal…
The evening began with interim artistic director Kenn-Matt Martin and managing director Adam Frank introducing various state and local politicians in the audience and announcing an extension of the run through October 15 due to popular demand. The set was adapted for the Head Theatre so that the audience, seated above and below in arena formation, faced the stage with cabaret-style table seating on the floor for some patrons. The backstage, used for entrances, had a wall of large, framed photos of famous entertainers of the era, such as Louis Armstrong. Red and gold curtains were tied back on each side of the proscenium. The grand piano was played beautifully by jazz pianist, Terry Brewer, who was accompanied on most songs by Eliot Seppa on bass and guitar and Francis Carroll on drums. Music director Nolan Williams, Jr. and arranger Danny Holgate cleverly adapted the songs, some of which were partially sung or interrupted, so that Tanea Renee (Billie Holiday) could make comments and continue her narrative.
Ms. Renee portrayed Ms. Holiday so realistically that the audience developed an almost immediate connection and sympathy for her character. Throughout the performance, I found myself gradually yearning and hoping she could get through each song without forgetting lyrics or falling down from the effects of her constant drinking. It was an exceptional portrayal, with many physical gestures that became slightly more exaggerated as the character succumbed to the effects of alcohol. Director Nikkole Salter allowed the audience to experience Billie Holiday’s warmth, humor, anger, sadness, and determination. It was fascinating to watch her wandering among the tables while telling stories and interacting with the audience in so many different little ways. A good director also pays attention to the little details, such as Ms. Renee leaving the stage, Mr. Brewer playing a wonderful jazz interlude, and then Ms. Renee returning with a larger glass of alcohol.
Costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka created a wonderful white gown, complete with long white gloves, for Ms. Renee who was able to lower the shoulder straps as Holiday became more intoxicated, adding depth to the portrayal. No representation of this singer would be complete without the signature white gardenia she often wore in her hair. It was in a small box for most of the performance, but Ms. Renee put it on near the end of the play.
Lighting designer Jorge Arroyo created the atmosphere with lamps hanging over the backstage area; wall sconces on the proscenium; lights on the cabaret tables; an overhead spotlight for the musical numbers, flickering lights and backlighting to emphasize certain parts of the narration; and a row of projections running around between the orchestra and balcony to indicate Ms. Holiday’s dream of having her own nightclub. Cherelle D. Guyton’s hair and makeup appropriately reflected the singer’s style and that of the big band era of the 1930s and 1940s.
Billie Holiday is part of the roster of many great performers who have succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction and had their careers cut short as a result. The play portrays the effects of addiction. Perhaps by having Billie Holiday tell her own story—in a performance setting four months before her death at age 44—we can appreciate even more her struggles against racism, alcohol, and drugs. We wish that we could have had her talent for much longer.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” has been extended through October 15, 2023 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore MD 21202. For more information and to purchase tickets, call the Box Office at 410-332-0033, Tuesday-Friday from 12 noon-5 pm or go online.