note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Whether she’s portraying a Civil War heroine, the mother of an African despot, legendary singer Billie Holiday, or any other role, Boston playwright-actor-director Jacqui Parker never ceases to amaze. She is the all-encompassing, consummate performer, and she is dazzling audiences in Lanie Robertson’s fictional musical story of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” appearing now through April 24, at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
During this one-act, 90-minute play that brings Holiday back to her roots, performing in one of her final cabaret performances, in Philadelphia, the iconic singer, who broke racial and musical barriers in her day, traces her unhappy life and her meteoric career. As the play opens, a lone piano player tickles the ivories, and Billie Holiday breaks into one of her hit songs, “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone”.
The mood at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at midnight on March 1959, is melancholic, nostalgic. The setting, a bare bones, gray-bricked, tacky club (nicely designed by Skip Curtiss), reflects Lady Day’s rise and fall from grace, as she sings and retraces her glory days, performing with jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, and breaking color barriers by being the first black singer to perform with an integrated band, the Artie Shaw Orchestra. Heck, she even made it to Carnegie Hall, which was unheard of for a black singer in her era.
Holiday intersperses anecdotes of her sordid, drug-filled abused life between singing some of her big numbers, including “When A Woman Loves a Man;” the funny “Gimme a Pig Foot;” “God Bless the Child,” her huge hit which she co-wrote and for which she remains legendary; the highly controversial “Strange Fruit,” about a black man who was lynched; her saucy rendition of “Taint Nobody’s Bizness” and others in this 14-song repertoire. Tracing her days of being tossed among relatives, living in a brothel, prostituting herself, while gaining inspiration from singer Bessie Smith’s records, and sent to a Catholic reform school twice, set the stage for her lifestyle swilled with alcohol, opium and heroin, or as she pronounces it, “herr-on”. Holiday’s unhappy romances, marriages, arrests, incidents of blatant racism despite her fame were also tragic. Nevertheless, Holiday retains her sense of humor and her innate ability to move us with song, until she fades to darkness in the middle of “Deep Song”.
With his usual upbeat manner, Lyric Artistic Director-Director Spiro Veloudos, with Jacqui Parker and music director-onstage pianist Chauncey Moore, deliver a touching portrait of a troubled, world-renowned performer who lit up stages but couldn’t find a peaceful niche in her personal life. Karen Perlow’s poignant lighting and Mallory Frers’ period costumes add to the overall production; but clearly, the spotlight shines on Parker and her startling resurrection of Lady Day - the lady with the white gardenia in her hair, song in her heart, and troubled soul.
BOX INFO:One-act, 90-minute, musical play, written by Lanie Robertson, appearing now through April 24, at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Showtimes are Wednesday, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; post-show talkback, April 11, after the 3 p.m. show. Tickets are $29-$54. Call 617-585-5678, visit www.lyricstage.com, or the Box Office.