Beck Center Evokes Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”

Fri 3/15-Sun 4/14 

I was once told by a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee that Billie Holiday didn’t deserve to be in the HoF because “she didn’t influence anyone.” (She was subsequently inducted in 2000, about a decade later than she should have been).

But the singer, who died in 1959 at age 44 after a difficult life that included the longtime drug addiction and alcoholism that killed her too soon, had a luminous voice that transcended genres and encompassed pop, jazz and R&B, setting the template for many contemporary singers. Many recall her primarily as a mournful singer of songs about how she’d been done wrong (and she had a knack for picking the wrong men) and of course, her groundbreaking performance of the unforgettable “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching. But she could be jaunty and upbeat as well on tunes like “Too Marvelous for Words” or “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”

The 1986 musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill depicts Holiday preparing for one of her final performances in 1959, as she runs through her numbers and reminisces about her life. The only other character in it is her accompanist, so it offers a singer/actress the chance to deliver a tour de force performance if she’s up to it. (Audra McDonald played the role of Holiday in the 2014 Broadway production).

Cleveland actress Nicole Sumlin, last seen on locally in A Raisin in the Sun at Ensemble Theatre last month, certainly is. She’ll be performing the role onstage at the Beck Center’s intimate Studio Theater, which will be reconfigured as a 50s-style nightclub with cabaret seating options onstage. Scott Spence directs and Ed Ridley, who also takes the role of Holiday’s pianist, is the music director, with Bradford on bass.

It runs Fridays and Saturdays @ 8pm and Sundays @ 3pm through Sun 4/14. Tickets range from $10-$33.


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