Is Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill the antidote to the banal jukebox musical? At Friday’s opening of ion theatre’s new production of Lanie Robertson’s 1986 two-person play about jazz great Billie Holiday, that question kept running through my mind.
Yes, we get to hear a baker’s dozen of signature Billie Holiday songs convincingly recreated by Cashae Monya, but the play and ion’s sharp production is anything but the hum-along nostalgia trip promised by your typical jukebox musical. Instead, it is a searing biographical portrait of a talented performer whose career was bedeviled by addictions that withered the body and racism that devastated the soul.
Set in a small, shabby South Philadelphia bar in 1959—a few months before Holiday’s death—Robertson’s construct allows Holiday to tell her own story as she introduces another song or set in her routine for the sparse local crowd, a far cry from the thousands of sophisticated urbanites that paid top dollar to see her at Carnegie Hall only three years earlier.
Ion has shrewdly turned its larger building adjacent to its customary BlkBox stage into a cabaret, with a postage-stamp stage for the singer built along one wall, surrounded by little tables and a working bar for the audience. This arrangement, in a slightly larger configuration, worked splendidly a few seasons back for ion’s production of Chicago: A Speakeasy Cabaret, and it certainly created the right atmosphere to this play.
Robertson’s play rises or falls on the charisma of the lead actor, and Cashae Monya is mesmerizing as Billie Holiday. She is alternately proud, angry, sassy, self-pitying, and even philosophical. One moment assailing her audience with uncompromising opinions, Monya quickly turns to her listeners pleading for acceptance and understanding. She shifts emotional gears with the finesse of a finely tuned sports car negotiating Alpine switchbacks.
If her vocal timbre strikes the ear a bit brassier than Holiday’s, her inflection and phrasing are spot on, and she unquestionably knows how to sell a song, whether it is a rollicking Bessie Smith ballad like “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)” (music and lyrics by Wesley Wilson) or one of Lady Day’s own pathos-filled laments like “Don’t Explain” (co-written with Arthur Herzog).
As Jimmy Powers, Holiday’s musical collaborator and manager, Brandon Sherman proves more fluent at the keyboard than as the colleague forced to cover for Holiday’s onstage emotional breakdowns. His deferential but stylish accompaniments set a mood, then almost disappear when the diva begins to sing, an approach that would be more successful with an acoustic piano rather than with the electronic keyboard the company has supplied. Even an out-of-tune spinet piano would have worked more agreeably, because the spindly, synthetic sounds of the keyboard keep reminding us that we are not at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in 1959.
Claudio Raygoza’s sleek direction keeps the spotlight (figuratively and literally) on Monya all the time. Since the performance space has been turned into a cabaret, Raygoza’s minimal production design easily fills the bill. Apt 1950s touchstones include Monya’s frothy red and white floral gown, Sherman’s large fedora, and the prominent chrome microphone.
Kudos to music director Sherman for authentic recreations of Holiday’s signature as well as less familiar selections from her song catalog. And kudos to ion theatre for reviving a powerful play. After you see it, you will read a “Black Lives Matter” poster in a different light.