Theater Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL (Porchlight)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 6, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Thanks to Lanie Robertson’s bedrock-basic script, Rob Lindley’s dedicated staging and the utter effacement of a good vocalist into a great one, courtesy of Alexis Rogers, Porchlight Music Theatre’s 90-minute revival pays full, if conditional, homage to Billie Holiday’s heroism and heartbreak.

Unlike her famous “God Bless the Child,” Lady Day never did get “her own.” But she put that loss, unforgettably, into what she called “a blues feeling with a jazz beat.” You don’t hear this music – you shoot it up.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Porchlight's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Chicago

Like the decaying Krapp in Samuel Beckett’s bitter retrospective, the 44-year-old Billie who haunts Emerson’s bar, a South Philly watering hole, is on the skids and on parole from a year-long sentence for heroin possession. Banned from the big houses she used to fill (and insulted as “Lady Yesterday”), she must now revisit the dumps she played on the way up.

Undismayed, Lady Day fondles her trademark gardenia (hokily discovered in a gift box near the end), jokes with Jimmy Powers (Jaret Landon), her infinitely forbearing accompanist, and waits for the “song to find me” – but it’s not for long.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Porchlight's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Chicago

Robertson won’t let us forget the price Billie paid to sing the blues. Uncured by her cold turkey in jail, foul-mouthed and ripe for revenge, Alexis Rogers’ Billie slowly frazzles until she breaks loose to get a fix and return, floating on a cloud of analgesia. Along the way she remembers hard and good times: Learning to croon in a Baltimore bordello by playing scratchy recordings of Bessie Smith; turning hophead with her first husband Sonny Monroe; and the vicious bigotry endured on Southern tours (including a searing anecdote of her revenge against the white sadist who wouldn’t let her piss in her segregated nightclub).

Though recalling Edith Piaf, Tammy Grimes and Marlene Dietrich, Rogers’ fragile, little-girl voice is uniquely Billie’s tender and vulnerable warble. The tremulous delicacy perfectly conveys Billie Holiday’s full-throated anguish:  Rogers’ “Easy Livin'” undulates on a wave of smooth sorrow, while her “Don’t Explain” goes beneath tears.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Porchlight's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, ChicagoRogers, who must overcome a tendency to mumble and slur her words to depict Billie’s tailspin, does more than just impersonate: Mirroring the typically rocky, often unfinished, concerts that Holiday choked out before her drug demise, Robertson’s script also drops her into a heroin hell. Rogers pours that breakdown into the one force that can contain it – the songs. Where “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” sung early on, seems dangerously animated after Billie shoots smack (her “moonlight”), “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do” takes on a special defiance.

A palpable pillar of patience, the gifted instrumentalist, Landon, is forlornly withdrawn, staring in the shadow as the falling star beside him gutters out. He looks as helpless as the real Jimmy must have felt, watching Billie tear away a bit more life each night.

photos by Kelsey Jorissen

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773
ends on March 10, 2013
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit Stage 773

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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