note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
Billie Holiday … April Armstrong
Jimmy Powers … Dean Marcellana
On paper, Lanie Robertson’s LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL is a deceptively simple musical play: a piano and a stand-up microphone suggest Emerson’s Bar & Grill in south Philadelphia; March, 1959. Waiting offstage: the great Billie Holiday ("Lady Day"), victim and survivor of numerous hells; four months later, she will be dead from cirrhosis and heart failure. Lady enters in immaculate white, holding her trademark gardenias and looking as if she had already died yet managed to show up, anyway. She sings her standards and then some, talks about herself and then some, and affectionately spars with Jimmy, her accompanist, who keeps her in line with song cues. Her addiction awakens and she goes off to feed it. She re-appears with her dog Pepe on whom she dotes, and repeatedly calls Jimmy by the name of her first lover (who also introduced her to heroin). She finally pins the gardenias to her hair but continues to spiral down, down, down. The show’s success depends on how deep a director and a singer-actress can cut into the woman’s pain; The Providence Black Repertory Company production succeeds admirably: the Black Rep Music Café, complete with working bar whenever Lady needs a refill, is cozy, intimate and perfect for performer-audience interaction. On the night I attended, the Café was packed; the audience: predominantly white and middle-aged. A black audience, of course, would react differently to Ms. Holiday’s music and her tragedies (they would be more verbal, for starters); no doubt, April Armstrong, the Black Rep’s Lady, would perform differently, as well; when she passed a plate of pigs’ feet amongst her white patrons, for example, you could see she was working uphill --- like the audience at the New Rep production of BLANCHE & HER JOYBOYS, Ms. Armstrong’s white folks laughed and applauded on cue but, otherwise, sat in churchlike silence; it was Family Night at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and Ms. Armstrong trimmed her performance accordingly.
By the time Ms. Holiday made her last recordings, her voice had deteriorated after years of abuse --- would an audience, coming to celebrate Ms. Holiday's artistry, put up with an evening of a dying woman uttering broken sounds, no matter how accurate the impersonation? (Remember Judy Garland's TV show in the early 60s? That made for uncomfortable viewing.) Ms. Armstrong and Rose Weaver, her director, have reached a compromise between truth and entertainment: for much of Act One, Ms. Armstrong plays and sings Lady in fresh, vibrant voice and talks stream-of-consciousness in clear-eyed earth tones to draw her listeners in (and she does; she does), though Ms. Robertson having Lady air out her past for the plot's sake becomes too personal for a nightclub act and would make better sense had Lady been unaware that the brakes are off and she is heading for another smash-up. Ms. Armstrong may not look like Ms. Holiday (actually, she resembles Diana Ross who played her in the biopic LADY SINGS THE BLUES), nor does she sound like her, at first, though her own instrument is a lovely, stylish one. But beginning with “God Bless the Child” which closes Act One and on into “Strange Fruit” (cued by her touring with Artie Shaw, down South) and “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (sung after she shoots up), Ms. Armstrong starts to cash in: the more poisoned Lady becomes, the more Ms. Armstrong evokes the woman’s high, thick, lazy timbre. In Act One, Ms. Armstrong is a sassy personality; in Act Two, a dramatic actress shines through: her Lady’s addiction is not presented through seizures and fits but through repeated scratching of her left arm and with the brain and tongue raising ahead of the gaunt, tortured body; for the remainder of the evening, the songs and the chatter come from the bottom of a bone-dry, echoing well. Watch Ms. Armstrong/Holiday in the piano interludes, where she is feeding off the music, soaking it in --- music is her primary drug --- she ends, finally, in a stunning moment by suddenly lip syncing in silence and fading first to sepia and then to black. Again: stunning.
As the ever-patient Jimmy, Dean Marcellana is wooden in his line readings but wonderfully fluid in his accompaniment, and Pepe, an inquisitive Chihuahua, draws expected coos from the audience but this is one time when the dog does not steal the show --- the haunted leading lady does. Catch her, while you can.