Corrections or additions?
This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 17, 2001
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Lady Day’
There’s a story about Billie Holiday, supposedly true,
that seems to sum up her unyielding spirit. She once performed in
a club in the 1930s, in which it was her job to sing the same song
over and over again, the entire evening. Although she did as she was
told, strolling to each table in the club — as many as 25 —
singing that single song, Holiday insisted on singing it differently
Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and
Grill" — onstage at George Street Playhouse through November
11 — presents us with Billie Holiday at the end of her life,
performing many of her classic songs in front of a sparse crowd in a
rundown bar in south Philadelphia. Holiday has been dead for over 40
years now, and most people these days have only seen her in
black-and-white film clips that are occasionally shown on TV.
Robertson seeks to give us a taste of what it might have been like to
experience this dynamic American artist in the flesh and blood.
Unfortunately, the general feel is more mannequin-like.
Between songs, speaking directly to the audience, though occasionally
spurred on by members of her three-piece band, Robertson’s Holiday
offers snippets of events from her life. Although these memories are
sometimes painful and other times sublime, taken together they are
intended to offer a revealing portrait of an intensely lived life.
She speaks of the tough years growing up with her mother (whom she
refers to as "The Duchess"), her degrading marriage, her deep
love for the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, the irrational
racism she experienced on the road, and the decency displayed by Artie
Shaw and his band who insisted on eating side-by-side with Holiday
in the kitchen of a segregated Alabama restaurant.
But as far as being a dramatic work for the theater, "Lady Day
at Emerson’s Bar and Grill" isn’t much of a play. With 16 songs
performed in its 90-minute running time, there simply isn’t very much
room for drama. At times the play smacks of being something of a
tribute concert, a step or two up from the hordes of Elvis
impersonators who roam the kitschy lounges of the world. What drama
there is comes in the form of reminisces, many fairly well known,
culled by Robertson from Holiday’s autobiography and other sources.
Overall, the stories seem rather self-consciously stuffed in between
Given the slightness of the play, the success of the evening hinges
entirely on the performance of the lead actor. Suzzanne Douglas, who
plays Holiday, and director Reggie Montgomery, both state that they
weren’t shooting for a literal imitation of Billie Holiday, but
something closer to her temperament and musical expressiveness. But
although Douglas sings with a lot of energy, her performance seems
less like Billie Holiday and more like Suzzanne Douglas.
This would not be much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that
Holiday’s vocals are so uniquely her own — impressively nuanced
and hauntingly beautiful — while Douglas usually takes a more
middle-of-the-road, pop approach. Her performance lacks the breadth
of vulnerability that Holiday displayed in every one of her songs,
and pales significantly in our inevitable comparison.
Douglas is more effective in the dramatic moments. There is no
question that she is a fine actor, as she proved last season in the
George Street production of "Wit." But in this play her acting
technique actually detracts from her performance. Every wide-eyed
smile or tough-talk pose she adopts as Holiday seems less a life-like
response to living in the moment and more like a glossy technique
learned in acting class.
Although "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill" is more or
less a one-person play, Douglas does share the stage with David Alan
Bunn on upright piano, David Robinson on sax, and Tommie L. McKenzie
on standup bass. They are terrific, and infuse the evening with
moments of unqualified joy.
Reggie Montgomery’s direction never seems rushed. It is not easy to
encapsulate a lifetime into one evening in a way that makes sense,
and his direction allows for significant moments in the story to make
their own time. Although this may not add to the play’s realism or
allow the audience more room to empathize with its central character,
it certainly makes it easier to know what’s going on.
It’s not that "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill" is such
a bad play, or even that George Street’s production is subpar —
the production is perhaps too slick. As an artist, Billie Holiday
lived a life that was truly on the spiritual edge, both personally and
professionally. Knowing the price she paid to live with such
vulnerability, one can’t help but feel that she deserves a lot better.
— Jack Florek
Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $26
to $45. Runs to November 11.
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