Heartache, pain, regrets, joys, and a fair share of personal demons might fell a weaker person. But not even time in prison could stop the musical force of nature known to fans as Lady Day. If singing was her life, she lived most radiantly in her heyday and even in her twilight years while taking the stage in venues large and small.
Lady Day is, of course, the nickname of the jazz singer and unique artist Billie Holiday who blazed a trail that burned brightly during the early 20th century and then burned itself out when her years of drinking, drug use, and health problems took their toll when she was just 44 years old in 1959.
Luckily for audiences at Creative Cauldron in Fall Church, Holiday can lives most eloquently once again in the person of Iyona Blake – a fine singer and performer in her own right. Blake, a vision in a stylish, period gown of pure white, slips on the distinctive vocal stylings of Lady Day and transports herself to a little bar and grill in South Philadelphia just months before she would pass away.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is that simple – one of Holiday’s last evenings, performing the music she loved for an appreciative audience in an intimate nightclub. The show is a celebration of the song’s Holiday made famous, with a tune-stack of standards mingled with some hidden gems. If all you want to do is revel in some phenomenally performed jazz, look no further than Creative Cauldron. Master pianist Mark Meadows and his small but mighty combo breathe life into every note and syncopated rhythm, starting with an infectious “Overture” and shining through the dozen or more Holiday classics.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
closes March 4, 2018
Details and tickets
Blake, her usual soaring soprano molding to the plaintive sound that Holiday was known for, matched Meadows and his band note for note, mining the depths of the lyrics at every turn. The sheer fun of the old Bessie Smith tune “Gimme A Pigfoot,” or the personal connection to “God Bless the Child,” or the painfully searing “Strange Fruit” – these are just highlights among the songs Blake treats like Shakespearean soliloquies in blues and jazz.
The beauty of Lady Day is that it is more than a jukebox musical, churning out tune after tune. The script by Lanie Robertson, deceptive in its simplicity, offers Holiday the chance to interact with not only her piano player Jimmy Powers – as performed by Meadows – and her audience at Emerson’s. Holiday’s love of pig’s feet, her thoughts on love, memories of her mother (the Duchess), her time in jail, and even the ugly racism she faced as a woman of color in a difficult time in history – these moments are handled with authenticity and salty grace by Blake as the troubled Lady Day. Throughout the evening, Holiday nurses a cocktail (or two), fades in and out of memory, but always finds her way back to the microphone to share her love and her song with the crowd.
There are some wonderful surprises in store if you do yourself a favor and book your tickets for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. There is a special guest to look forward to and some directorial touches I think once again show Matt Conner to be one of the most creative directors around. His design collaborator Margie Jervis is also to be commended for turning the pocket-sized Creative Cauldron into a picture-perfect nightspot for Lady Day to once again sing for her supper.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson . Directed by Matt Conner . Cast: Iyona Blake and Mark Meadows, with DeAnte Haggerty-Willis, Brandon Lee, and Keith Butler, Jr. as the band. Music direction by Mark Meadows . Scenic/Costume design: Margie Jervis . Lighting design: Jimmy Englekemier . Stage manager: Sam Reilly . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.