Billie Holiday will forever be regarded as one of the true great American Jazz singers. But like many artists, Holiday lived a tortured life plagued by drug and alcohol abuse.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, now playing at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights through March 12, recreates a cabaret performance by the legendary singer in South Philadelphia in March 1959. Written by Lanie Robertson and described as “a play with music”, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill provides an intimate look at Holiday and her troubled life.
The play was first staged in 1986 in Atlanta Georgia, and soon transferred Off-Broadway. It then received its first Broadway mounting in 2014. Audra McDonald won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award for the role of Billie Holiday.
In this Metropolis production, we find Holiday at the end of her career. Emotionally she is a shell of her former self, but musically she still can create magic.
The play features just two characters: Billie Holiday and her pianist Jimmy Powers. Aside from a simple barroom background, a center stage mic for Holiday, and a grand piano for Powers in the corner, the stage is practically bare. For 80 minutes, Holiday recounts stories of her life while singing some of her most well-loved hits including, I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Crazy He Calls Me, Gimme a Pig Foot (and a Bottle of Beer), God Bless the Child, Easy Livin, and her controversial song about lynching Strange Fruit.
Under the skillful direction of Anthony Sims, with stellar music direction by Reggie Thomas, Mardra Thomas’ performance as Holiday captivates and transports the audience through time and space to 1959 South Philadelphia. It feels like you are peeking in on history.
Mardra Thomas is incredible as Holiday. The show opens with Holiday’s voice off stage. She doesn’t feel up to performing, implying she may be perhaps a little drug sick. However, with the encouragement of her pianist Powers, she finally makes her way to the stage.
At first Thomas’s Holiday is visibly nervous and out of sorts. However, the more she drinks, the looser she becomes. The music takes on an organic flow. Thomas’ voice is absolutely amazing. It is seasoned with gravel, yet equally capable of beauty. And talk about expressive! As Holiday, every time Thomas sings, her voice tells a story.
There are other stories beyond just songs. As Thomas makes love to drink after drink, she rambles tales from her life. It is an 80-minute monologue for Holiday – and Thomas lives up to the challenge with aplomb.
Imbibing throughout the performance, Holiday starts off talking about her inspirations of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. She distinguishes herself from Smith, saying her idol was a Blues woman, but she is a Jazz singer. By the end of the play, Holiday is almost incoherent as she mistakes her piano player for her ex-husband Monroe. It was Monroe who got her started on heroine early in her career. It is a stunning performance.
Many of Holiday’s stories are fascinating – ranging from being raped at the age of 10, to her ill-advised marriage to Jimmy Monroe, to her 1-year prison sentence for possession of narcotics. She talks about many of the injustices done to blacks during her time in the spotlight in the 1930s and 1940s.
One particular story that stands out has Holiday recounting her days touring the segregated South as the singer for Artie Shaw’s all-white orchestra. This was the first time a black female singer had been employed by an all-white orchestra. The racism Holiday faced is painful to hear about, but she still manages to insert some humor into the story.
As great as Mardra Thomas is as Billie Holiday, her performance is made possible by the exquisite piano playing of Reggie Thomas as Jimmy Powers. Reggie tickles the ivories like he’s casting a spell. His fingers nimbly fly across the keys and the result is magic.
As Billie Holiday, Mardra Thomas gives us the best performance to ever grace the Metropolis stage. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is an outstanding production – one of the best in Chicago’s recent history. Lady Day at Metropolis is an award-worthy triumph.
Lighting design by Christopher Moore II is subtle but incredibly effective – particularly towards the end of the production. Sound designer Edward D. Richardson and scenic designer Sydney Lynne also deserve recognition.
Sadly, Billie Holiday died in 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver from years of alcohol abuse. She had less than a dollar in the bank when she died.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Metropolis is located at the heart of downtown Arlington Heights at 111 W. Campbell Street. There is ample nearby, free street and garage parking. Tickets are $40.
For tickets and more information call (847) 577-2121 or visit www.MetropolisArts.com.
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