ORLANDO — Emerson’s Bar & Grill might not be a major concert stadium that only the big leagues sing at, but there’s no question that Billie Holiday’s performance there starts out filled with energy, drive, passion and enthusiasm. Yes, the bar is a cheap dive, but there’s an audience in front of her, and Billie is the consummate performer. She makes snappy jokes, charms the audience with her banter, and puts some real love into those old jazz hits.
As the evening wears on, the legendary blues singer does something else entirely: she falls apart before our eyes.
It isn’t directly mentioned during the show, but Lanie Robertson’s musical drama Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill has us watching Holiday perform in that Philadelphia dive in 1959, a few months before her death at the age of 44 from heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Think about that when you’re watching the play. Billie picks up a glass of whiskey close to the opening. Nothing unique about that, you might assume, but once Billie finishes the glass, she’s quick to pour herself another.
On stage, the drinks eventually poison her. We can see it plain as day. Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a sad and painful show, but at the same time it’s totally riveting.
Where is Lady Day Being Performed Locally?
The musical is now being performed at Orlando Shakes, and the set design inside its Mandell Theater is pretty impressive. We’re placed inside that dingy bar with a constant presence of cigarette smoke in the air (but not the actual smell), and with nightclub tables in the front stalls. Billie is joined by her three piece band, including her piano man, Jimmy Powers. Billie gives us soulful renditions of classics such as “God Bless The Child,” “Strange Fruit,” and her version of the Bessie Smith favorite “Gimme A Pigfoot.” As performed masterfully by Tymisha Harris, Billie’s voice is never less than breathtaking.
But it does get wobbly by the end. And Billie gives us a lot more than just her songs.
As each glass of whiskey gets devoured, Billie turns from performer to confessor. She starts to ramble, and the memories become darker and more bitter: horrible stories from her childhood including the brutal rape she endured at age 10, the drugs bust that stripped her of her New York cabaret card, harassment from probation officers, and so on. As she starts to feel ill, she refuses all requests by Jimmy to either speak less and just keep singing, or to take a break.
At one point, now heavily intoxicated, Billie even brings her chihuahua on stage to meet the audience. Jimmy watches in both panic and horror. So do we.
What Works in this Production of Lady Day?
Robertson’s play has been criticized in the past by critics who found it too downbeat and depressing, and I won’t deny there are moments that start ripping at your heart. Billie is so sassy, raucous and clever in the beginning that you want her to rush backstage for a quick nap, down some coffee, and some back refreshed and back in business.
But the reason I don’t find the show “depressing,” so to speak, is the stunning and totally engrossing performance by Harris. Watching the initially subtle way that Harris displays signs of Billie’s downfall, until it becomes too late to turn it around, you’re in awe at how fully this supreme actress and singer captures the style and spirit of Billie Holiday, and the harrowing way she portrays her near-collapse. Expect to be overwhelmed by her superb work here.
Garrick Vaughan is also excellent as Jimmy, and his sensational piano playing is fully complemented by Reggie Pryor on drums (he has some hilarious moments when Billie starts mouthing off about white people, as he’s frantically tapping his drum cymbals to get her to shush up), and Larry McRae on bass. The band has a solo instrumental when Billie heads backstage, and they’re absolutely fantastic musicians.
And you’re going to marvel as well at Chip, a 5-year-old rescue chihuahua making his theatrical debut here. Chip was rescued by Paws of Dale Hollow, an organization based in Tennessee, and his pooch truly makes a charming companion for Billie on stage. As Orlando Shakes notes, “His favorite treat is bacon, his favorite toy is anything plush with squeakers, and he loves doing tricks and being the center of attention.” Chip has a genuine stage presence.
This is an exceptionally high quality production courtesy of everyone involved, and it’s going to haunt you long after the lights have come up and the show has ended.
Where Can I See Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill?
Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill is being performed at The Orlando Shakespeare Theater, 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park. The production, which opened on Feb. 8, runs now through March 5.
The show is 90 minutes long with no intermission. The eight nightclub tables situated around the stage are available for audience members to be seated at. Definitely ask about those tables, because you’ll have a terrific view.
To learn more or to purchase tickets, call 407-447-1700.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.