WHAT: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
WHEN: February 2 – March 10, 2013 (see here for schedule)
WHERE:Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave.)
RUNTIME: 90 minutes with no intermission
HOST: Porchlight Music Theatre
OUR RATING: Do It!
As the lights come up on Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia, 1959, the legendary Billie Holiday takes the stage and lives out one of her final concerts in this sometimes tragic, sometimes uplifting and always powerful performance. Accompanied by a wonderfully talented and expressive jazz trio, Holiday (Alexis J. Rogers) leads us on a musical journey through her life, relationships and struggles in a fascinating and deeply emotional portrait of one of the world’s greatest legendary jazz singers.
Adam: One of the strongest productions I’ve seen in the last year, Lady Day is a moving, stirring tribute to this great icon of jazz. With old standards like Easy Livin’, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, and the incomparable God Bless the Child, we learn the true story behind Holiday and begin to better understand the struggles her life, and success, entailed.
Rogers’ smooth and sultry voice is a perfect imitation of Holiday’s, and at some points, I thought Rogers was holding back her own voice in order to emulate that of the great singer. But, I didn’t mind. Along with Lanie Robertson’s superb script, including anecdotes that speak to all humanity about the evils of oppression and the horrific struggle to overcome all types of adversity, Rogers fools the audience into believing she really is Holiday, leading one to the tragic realization that any dramatization of her life must end in her death. In this way, a sense of dread builds throughout the production, masterfully executed under the direction of Rob Lindley and Jaret Landon. Nevertheless, I was left feeling elated at such a wonderful portrayal of such an irreplaceable singer. Highly recommended.
Alicia: As you walk into Stage 773’s proscenium theater in Lakeview, you can’t help but feel you’ve entered a jazz club from the 50s, and all that is missing are cabaret tables and lamps. And you realize that you and the rest of the audience are dressed all-too-inappropriately. The women should be in glitzy A-line dresses reminiscent of the glitz of the roaring 20s with the sophistication of modern 50s fabrics. And your date definitely forgot his fedora.
Scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec must be applauded for his intimate and simply beautiful set that reels you into a small bar in Philadelphia from this era, with a well placed fog machine imitating the cigarette smoke that was probably pervading the bar back then. The only thing I wished was that the whole play was transplanted next door to Stage 773’s cabaret theater instead, but perhaps that’s too much to ask.
The show from start to finish is completely riveting, and the role of Holiday is all too perfect for Rogers, who not only slips into – but owns – the star’s shoes. After first seeing Rogers as Bess in Court Theatre’s production of Porgy and Bess, and being pretty disappointed in the pairing of Rogers and her character, she has completed altered my perception of her as a performer. She transforms and transitions skillfully from song to song with some interrupting discussions with the audience and her band, and you almost forget that you aren’t watching and listening to the real thing. There’s passion, hope, loss, faith, love, and darkness, and they all stalk you for the whole 90 minutes, leaving you quite exhausted by the end of it all. But exhausted in the way you feel after a good workout, or a good cry, and at the end of her performance there’s nothing you can do but give the work a standing applause.
Final thoughts: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill stands out as a wonderful production for anyone passionate about jazz, music and theatre. Rogers’ performance is amazing and well worth your evening. So, book a ticket, pull up a chair and drink in the atmosphere…