Billie Holiday, who died in 1959 at the age of 44, is an icon in the music world. With her voice and unique style, she gave powerful and sensual representation to songs she sang during the height of the jazz age. Lanie Robertson has created in 90 minutes, a powerful play with some of Holiday’s greatest hits but also with poignant moments in Holiday’s life in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Produced in 1986, it has appeared across the country for decades and has won numerous awards. It is now on the stage at Philadelphia Theatre Company.
The play takes place in an old South Philly bar, a few months before Billie’s death. She is accompanied by Jimmy Powers (Will Brock) on the piano. She is banned from performing in New York because of a drug conviction. Holiday (Laurin Talese) is a drug addict and alcoholic, consuming alcohol throughout her performance. Between the songs, she tells us her story.
Billie’s idols were Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and she sang along with them at home as the victrola played. Smith died the year Holiday married for the first time- at sixteen. Her husband, she tells us, was her first and her worst. He got her hooked on drugs. But he didn’t give her what she wanted most, a child.
There were many more stories and anecdotes, including when she traveled with Artie Shaw and his band (the first Black woman to work with a white band) Shaw had to pay extra for her to eat in the restaurant but only in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear Talese clearly as she often talked softly and rapidly, often mumbling, and though I was sitting a stone’s throw from the intimate stage, I missed much.
Talese does have a lovely voice and it is wonderful listening to the songs Holiday made famous like “I Wonder Where Love Has Gone, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Crazy He Calls Me,” and the legendary song, “Strange Fruit,” about a lynching in the south. Billie often got into trouble for singing that song but insisted on singing it to make sure the story was told. However, Talese’s voice did not resemble that of Holiday’s, which had a rugged, yet intimate feel.
How much does an actor have to resemble and perform like the person she is portraying? I ask myself that question whenever I see a one-person show about someone famous who we remember. Talese does a credible job, but I never felt like she was Billie Holiday. But then again, who can be Billie Holiday?
Still, the feeling that scenic and lighting designer Thom Weaver has created of a bar in S. Philly with the audience right there beside the stage is outstanding. And the accompaniment of Music Director Will Brock who plays for Holiday is perfect. A few words of advice- one for the director, Jeffrey L. Page and one for the audience. Slow the rhythm and increase the volume of his star. And if you plan to attend, sit at one of the tables up close to make sure you hear it all.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill ” by Lanie Robertson at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Phila., PA 19146, 215-985-0420, www.philatheatreco.org Thru April 30, 2023.