First introduced to the brilliant Billie Holiday via the Diana Ross film “Lady Sings the Blues,” I have been an appreciative fan of the fallen star Holiday who influenced everyone musically from Lou Rawls to Sting.
Whether you call it a play with music, or a musical or a biographical narrative, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” currently playing at Arlington Heights’ Metropolis, is simply mesmerizing. Written by Lanie Robertson, who has a flair for writing about iconic artists and the societal issues they face, “Lady Day” was a 2014 Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards winner. It is an extraordinary visit with the first Black singer to front an all-white big band in her very last appearance. And it’s also extraordinary because of the talents of director Anthony Sims and performers Mardra Thomas and Reggie Thomas.
Clocking in at just under 85 minutes, this is an intimate journey that honors Billie Holiday and the “truths of the past”; as Sims describes the production: “a mural or mosaic to and for Holiday.”
Action is set in 1959 in a rundown Philadelphia bar (designed by Sydney Lynne), where Thomas as Holiday captivates an audience of “friends.” Through song and poignant stories, she relays her tumultuous and tragic life: a life persecuted by the government, betrayal by lovers (especially her first husband, Sonny), the swindling of her earnings (she died at age 44 with just 70 cents in her bank account), racial discrimination, and alcohol and drug addiction.
Thomas makes it all a bewitching, captivating experience, from her less than magnificent entrance resplendent in a white satin cocktail dress and glittery rhinestones to her frozen-in-song ending (costumes by Jos N. Banks). She also delivers a consistent salty and wry humor, providing comic relief as we are introduced to some of the horrors of her past. “Parole officers are always white. They come in late to my shows and always wear white socks – they’re scared of colored folks and colored socks … When I die, I don’t care if it’s heaven or hell, as long as it’s not Philly.”
Thomas unravels as Holiday; she’s sharp, she’s warm, she’s just an enchanting, luminous, riveting and vibrant actress who also happens to be a magnificent singer. Thomas tells Holiday’s stories as she becomes believably intoxicated and incoherent; the most incredibly touching moments occur with her stunning rendition of “God Bless the Child” (written for her mother) and the determined, passionate “Strange Fruit,” a song that graphically illuminates the horrific brutalization of Black Americans. You can’t ignore “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, there’s strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Thomas is flawless as she croons, belts and serenades with 15 songs in total, from the popular to the lesser known of Holiday’s catalog. Playwright Robertson illustrates how Holiday found solace in songs, yet “the music is like an injection of heroin.” And Holiday gives full credit to the musical influences of “Pops” Louie Armstrong and Bessie Smith, as she colorfully relays how she came to love them while working as a child maid in Baltimore.
But let’s not forget the other central character in “Lady Day.” From the moment we hear Reggie Thomas’ character Jimmy Powers, you know you’re going to like him. With a calmly soothing full voice, he’s coaxing Billie out to sing for the bar crowd. When Reggie Thomas gets to the piano, he’s magic. He is as alive with his toe-tapping and flying fingers as the music he plays onstage. He makes Jimmy sweetly patient and as powerfully majestic as what he gifts us with musically.
Metropolis’ “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is an honest history lesson, a haunting musical tribute, and a potently appealing production showcasing two exquisitely talented performers. Highly recommended.
[The show runs about 80 minutes with no intermission, and contains graphic and explicit language. Proof of vaccination and masks are required.]
• A veteran onstage and backstage theater aficionado, theater board member and theater reviewer, Regina Belt-Daniels is delighted to experience live productions with audiences once again.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”
WHERE: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights
WHEN: Through March 12
INFORMATION: 847-577-2121, MetropolisArts.com
Source: The Daily Chronicle