THEATER REVIEW: “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill @ Beck Center by Roy Berko

Through Sun 4/14

Having seen Audra McDonald’s Tony Award winning Broadway performance of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, I went to see the Beck production of the show with trepidation.

I should have feared not. As it turns out Nicole Sumlin in the lead role, and Ed Ridley portraying Jimmy Powers, Holiday’s musical director and jazz pianist extraordinaire, were more than up to the challenge.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is a jukebox bio musical by Lanie Robertson which loosely recounts some of the life of Billie Holiday, an American jazz singer whose career as the first-lady-of-jazz spanned over 30 years. Known for her seminal influence on jazz and pop singing, as well as her manipulation of phrasing, tempo and improvisational skills, the talented Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday, had little formal music education and training.

The child of unwed teenagers, she had a turbulent childhood and became a hit at Harlem nightclubs and brothels at an early age. Her life and career were marked with many unwise love affairs, brushes with the law, which included jail and prison sentences, and singing with Count Basie. Basie once said, of Holiday’s tenacity, “When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn’t tell her what to do.” Her life was also filled with incidents in which she found herself at odds with the “whites only” policy of many nightclubs, business, hotels, hospitals and restaurants.

Holiday is noted for many songs but her two biggest hits were “God Bless the Child,” which she supposedly wrote as a tribute to her mother, and “Don’t Explain,” written after she caught her husband Jimmy Monroe with lipstick on his collar. She appeared in a number of films including New Orleans, which also featured Woody Herman and Louis Armstrong.

Drug usage and alcohol consumption paid their toll. In 1947 she was arrested in her New York apartment for possession of narcotics and was sent to Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia. Unfortunately, after her release, in spite of a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert attended by over 2700 fans and a musical entitled Holiday on Broadway, which ran three weeks, she was again arrested on drug charges.

Thus we find ourselves in Emerson’s Bar and Grill, her favorite Philadelphia haunt, obviously drunk, singing and recounting the highs and lows of her life. This is a withered Holiday, the lows of her life having taken over, in what was probably going to be one of her last performances.

The Beck production is compelling. Nicole Sumlin is spot on as Holiday. The signature phrasing, the flow of ideas filled with hurt, the sultry jazz sound, are all present. Sumlin has put on the Holiday aura and wears it with fidelity throughout.

She is brilliantly supported by Ed Ridley, the master of the keyboard, who also portrays the role of Jimmy Powers, Bradford McGhee, a very talented bass player, and Leonard Goff, as the Emerson’s bartender.

Cameron Michalek’s simple set, a small stage surrounded by tables, Trad Burns’ lighting and Carlton Gur and Angie Hayes’ sound designs all enhanced the production. Scott Spence directs.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Nicole Sumlin is superb as Billie Holiday, Ed Ridley plays one mean piano and Bradford McGhee plucks a happy tune. The result is a special evening of musical theater.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs Beck Center for the Arts Sun 4/14. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to beckcenter.org

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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