THEATER REVIEW: “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” @ Beck Center by Laura Kennelly

Through Sat 4/14

Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, the Beck Center proudly presents Ms. Nicole Sumlin, songstress and actress extraordinaire! Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill gives a glimpse of the late chanteuse Billie Holiday’s last days as a singer. It also offers a great chance for a vocalist with acting chops to entertain, move and impress an audience. Enter Sumlin, who, as Holiday, does just that.

Scott Spence directs this Studio Theater production written by Lanie Robertson. Cameron Michalak designed the perfect set for the cozy space. There’s even a bar in the corner (genially managed by Leonard Goff as Em) and five tables for patrons close to the stage. (Despite the wine glasses and the bar, only Lady Day took a drink — or five — during the show.)

There are songs galore sung in Billie Holiday style (“What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” etc. Check her out on YouTube) — jazz club stylings — romantic, sexy, and (increasingly) boozy. Born in 1915, raised in poverty, she managed to create her own style before she died of liver disease when she was 44. When the play opens, she’s just out of a brief stint in jail and performing in a Philadelphia club. As dramaturg Leonar Inez Brown tells us in the program notes, there is “no happy ending, there is no redemptive moment,” but the glimpses we get of Holiday show us “moments [that] depict personal triumph.”

Sumlin shows us all that and, in a credible imitation of Holiday, sings with loving conviction while revealing, as the show continues, that the star is still addicted to booze and drugs. She’s supported in her show by pianist Ed Ridley as Jimmy Powers and Bradford McGhee as groovy bass player Ray Carter. Ridley (who is also music director of the show) plays a mean piano and (in a different sense of “playing”) a good friend to the failing Holiday. It’s a touching show about the fragility of success and the power of music.

It’s also a long show, and some had trouble staying in the bleacher seats for 90 minutes, making a big clatter as about five left at once. What might have been irritating turned into “Oh yes, that’s how it is at a club” and for me, added a dash of reality to the experience.

BOTTOM LINE: A fine ensemble effort headlined by Sumlin.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]


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