Billie Holliday experienced extreme poverty, racism, sexual abuse, a drug addiction, and prison, yet still had a legendary career as one of the great jazz singers of the 20th century. If you want to understand why she’s still fondly remembered and loved more than fifty years after her death, head to Anacostia Playhouse for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
First things first – get there early. You can grab a seat at one of the small tables in front of the stage, order a drink at the bar for a “donation,” and enjoy a little jazz piano from LeVar Betts. You’ll be smiling even before the show officially starts thanks to his skillful renditions of jazz standards like “Unforgettable,” “Summertime,” and “Misty.”
LeVar Betts also portrays on-stage pianist Jimmy Powers (who is smoothly backed by Mike Pugh on bass and Sedale McCall on drums). He kicks things off with his introduction of the legendary Billie Holiday (aka “Lady Day”).
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is a play with music featuring a 44 year-old Billie Holiday giving one of her last live shows in March 1959 before passing away four months later. It is set at a smoky little rundown club in South Philadelphia, a setting that is meant to echo Billie’s own broken-down condition.
Yet when Anya Randall Nebel makes her entrance as Billie, she shines, both figuratively and literally (well-lit in a shiny white evening gown, long fingerless formal gloves, glittery jewelry, and a large white flower in her hair). She also performs like the one-time superstar she was, especially on “When a Woman Loves a Man” (lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer).
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
closes August 6, 2017
Details and tickets
The audience soon learns that Billie is prone to long conversational jags filled with colorful adult language, despite Jimmy’s best efforts to keep her on track and singing her famous songs. She tells stories from her depressing childhood (often about her mother, nicknamed “The Duchess”), her awful marriage to Sonny Monroe (her “first and worst” who got her hooked on heroin), and her travails in show business (including touring the racist South).
At times it’s tempting to root for Jimmy in trying to get Billie away from her lengthy stories and back on tune. Yet without this background, it would be hard to appreciate fully songs like “God Bless the Child” (written for her mother) or the classic “Strange Fruit” (about lynchings).
Has there ever been a singer who distilled heartbreak and unhappiness into such hauntingly beautiful music as Billie Holiday? If you’re a stranger to Billie, you’ll get a flavorful taste of her unique vocal stylings from the touching performance of Anya Randall Nebel. She nails Billie’s distinct accent, musical cadences, and deeply emotional and personal approach.
Nebel goes beyond impersonation to fully inhabit the character. Despite all the stories of tragedy in Billie’s life, Nebel conveys the singer’s the despair, her unbreakable spirit, and the comfort she finds only in her alcohol and her music.
Lanie Robinson wrote Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill after being told about Billie’s performance from someone who witnessed the show (one of only seven customers). It first played Off Broadway in 1986-87 and then kicked around in regional theatre for a couple of decades.
The play burst back into prominence when Audra McDonald took it to Broadway in 2014, winning her record 6th Tony Award for her performance. (She’s currently performing it in her debut on London’s West End.) Yet as one who saw her in that run, Nebel’s performance is comparable. McDonald’s acting skills helped her capture the sensitivity of the role, but at times she also tended to milk the dialogue a little much for this reviewer’s taste. Nebel’s interpretation may be less showy and more business-like, but it often felt more balanced and realistic.
Contributing to the power of the show is an excellent artistic team. From the moment audience members pass the lighted “BAR” sign, the atmosphere of the smoky club is nearly perfect. Set Designer Johnathan Dahm Robertson really put his heart into capturing the intimate small club environment. Director Tom Flatt hits every artistic note as surely as the band does.
There are many entertainment options in the DMV, but here’s a rule of thumb that won’t let you down. If you have the chance to go to a show featuring the music of a jazz or blues vocalist famous enough to be known by one name (like Billie, Ella, Bessie, Etta, Aretha, etc.), think about going.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at the Anacostia Playhouse succeeds on every level. The music is terrific, the story is memorable, and Anya Randall Nebel gives a powerful yet nuanced performance that will live in your memory for a long time.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson. Directed by Tom Flatt. Featuring Anya Randall Nebel and Jimmy Powers. Music Director: LeVar Betts. The Musicians: LeVar Betts, Mike Pugh, and Sedale McCall. Set Design: Johnathan Dahm Robertson. Lighting Design: John D. Alexander. Costume Design: Anya Nebel. Carpentry: Audrey Bodek. Stage Manager: Zukeh Freeman. Assistant Stage Manager: Wilma Lynn Horton. Production Manager: Z. Jones. Produced by Anacostia Playhouse. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.