If ever a show deserved to be termed a “tragic musical,” its “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille.”
In fact, the work could be deemed a drama with or without music. It’s a heavy piece of theater that is a disturbing but beautiful examination of a very sad life.
It’s also work you will not forget. This is especially true when the 90-minute show is given such a haunting performance by Gina-Simone Pemberton. Her portrayal of Billie Holiday at Cohoes Music Hall is as touching as it is sad. The overused phrase of “inhabiting a character” is the only accurate description of her portrayal. When you leave the theater, you truly believe you shared an hour and a half with a ghost.
Indeed, the play is ghost-like. It is a fictional recreation of a concert given by Billie Holiday at a seedy Philadelphia nightclub weeks before she died of cirrhosis of the liver. For most of the performance she stands alone on a runway in the midst of this intimate performance space.
Even her accompanist, Jimmy Powers – her best friend and husband – is in the background, on stage. Brandon Jones not only offers fine accompaniment on the piano, but he gives a wonderfully understated performance. His Jimmy becomes a mostly silent but concerned witness to Holiday’s descent to doom.
By all reports, at this stage in her life Holiday was a physical wreck. The toll that drug and alcohol abuse had taken on her body was obvious to all. Especially telling was her voice that earned her over $250,000 a year a decade earlier was now ravaged through abuse.
However, when Pemberton walks out on stage and takes her position behind a stool on an extended runway - she is beautiful. Dressed in an appropriately gorgeous white gown designed by Ashley Simone Kirchner, we understand she was once an admired, talented and independent woman-of-color in an era when that was threatening to almost everyone.
It is immediately clear that though it is presented in real time, this is a memory play. Indeed, the work is equally divided between Pemberton’s phenomenal interpretation of about a dozen of Holiday’s songs and a lot of exposition that reveals the tragedy of her life. The songs usually support the points made through the monologues, but it means they rarely change the mood of the play as they usually accent the tragedy of Holiday’s life.
But when it works, it becomes revealing and insightful. This is especially true for the racism that Holiday and other black entertainers endured. Holiday tells of a tour through the south with Artie Shaw’s band during which she had to stay in the kitchen between songs and was even denied the use of a bathroom.
When the story finishes, she sings “Strange Fruit.” The fruit referred to in the song were black men lynched in the south after the Civil War. The combination reminds the audience how almost a century later, racism was thriving.
Awareness of truth also occurs with “God Save the Child”, which she dedicates to her mother who was called “The Duchess.” Holiday might tell us how much she admired her mother, but the lyric “God save the child that got his own,” offers a different perspective on the relationship.
Indeed, though Pemberton has a beautiful voice, it is her way with lyrical interpretation that makes her work so special. She consumes a bottle of gin throughout the performance and even though it’s clear she’s poisoning her body, she never plays the flamboyant drunk. Pemberton makes clear the stories in the songs are the stories of Holiday’s life.
Director Michael Loporto makes the wise decision to avoid histrionics throughout the show. He encourages an honest telling of an honest story. That choice makes what could be a bleak, exploitive story a revealing biography of a tortured woman.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” is presented by Playhouse Stage at Cohoes Music Hall in repertory with “Jerry Lee Lewis versus Jerry Lee Lewis” through March 15. For tickets and schedule information call 518-434-0776 or go to playhousestagecompany.com
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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