In 1959, near the end of her life after decades of drug abuse, Billie Holiday still found the strength to perform at a variety of clubs, cabarets and other venues. Lanie Robertson’s musical play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” tells the story of one such imagined late-night performance at a club in South Philadelphia.
“Lady Day” is essentially a one-woman show revolving around its lead actress performing a series of Holiday’s songs connected by monologues about the highs and lows of her life. The successful Broadway run of the show was built around Audra McDonald, who won a record-breaking sixth Tony Award for her work, and all subsequent mountings need to have a startlingly powerful lead in order to be successful.
Zach Theatre’s new production of “Lady Day” has just such a lead in actress and recording artist Chanel. Joined on stage solely by members of a three-piece band, only one of whom ever speaks, and surrounded by small tables of audience members, Chanel takes Holiday on a transformative journey from bubbly jazz chanteuse to early civil rights activist to heartbroken heroin addict.
Holiday’s life was not one that solely consisted of sorrow, of course, and “Lady Day” emphasizes her strength just as much as it does her weaknesses. Early in the evening, she says, “Singing has always been the best part of living for me,” and we see that play out throughout the rest of the show. When she becomes lost in song, Chanel’s Holiday comes alive, revived from the various and numerous breakdowns she suffers during her monologues.
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Chanel is a dynamic performer, both as an impressionist channeling Holiday’s voice and as a spectacular vocalist in her own right, but she gives “Lady Day” its power most forcefully in the deft way she displays Holiday’s struggle to shine through the adversity she had faced all her life. There is a simplicity to her performance that allows the depth of Holiday’s pain to shine through in moving and powerful ways.
Director Michael Rader emphasizes this simplicity through a staging dynamic that represents the performance venue, allowing Chanel to roam around the stage, interacting with both her piano player/band leader Jimmy Powers (played by Kris KeyZ) and the audience members seated at the on-stage tables. As a result, however, sometimes (especially during the musical numbers) her back is turned to the bulk of the audience. Designer Michelle Ney’s set and costumes, though gorgeous, also feel a bit too beautiful for a story focusing on Holiday at the end of her life.
Ultimately, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is the story of a complex, complicated, legendary lady of song and stage, and Zach Theatre’s production has found the perfect leading lady to portray her.
‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 30
Where: Zach Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd
Information: 512-476-0541, zachtheatre.org.