The role of singer Billie Holiday in the play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill isn't easy. In fact, it as demanding as any role can be. The actress portraying the 1930s-era songstress must have a versatile singing voice, be able to act with a range of emotion, plus capture the essence of a real person, and do all this while keeping an audience entertained for 90 minutes, straight through with no intermission. Although there is a three-piece band and the pianist has a small acting part, Lady Day is really a one-person show.
Paulette Dozier has tackled this task before, performing Lady Day last April for The Boca Raton Theatre Guild. Now she's on stage as Lady Day again, this time in Coral Springs at Broward Stage Door for its summer run of Lanie Robertson’s portrait of Holiday.
The audience has a role, too. We are watching a Holiday performance at Philadelphia's Emerson's Bar & Grill. Robertson has re-imagined that it's one of Lady Day's last performances, taking place just four months before her death in 1959. The play is a virtual songbook of Holiday hits with more than a dozen tunes including such classics as "God Bless the Child,'' "Strange Fruit'' and "When a Woman Loves a Man," but this isn't a greatest hits revue. Interspersed in the intimate concert is Holiday, taking frequent sips of whiskey, sharing stories about her idols, the loves of her life including her first husband, Jimmy "Sonny" Monroe (he introduced her to heroin), her mother, who a bandmate nicknamed The Duchess and it stuck, and her poverty-stricken growing up. There are also frequent reminders in her stories of rampant racism at the time, which even Lady Day wasn't immune to despite her rise to stardom.
Robertson was inspired to write his play after a discussion he had with a friend from Philadelphia who had seen Billie Holiday perform at Emerson's Bar and Grill in 1958. The friend told Robertson that Holiday sang to a small crowd for more than an hour, but it was painfully clear that drug and alcohol addiction had taken a toll on her body and soul. She died at the age of 44 the following year.
In the opening of Robertson's play, the character has less than kind words for the City of Brotherly Love, where Emerson's is located. The explanation for her disdain for the city? She was arrested on a narcotics charge in Philadelphia in 1947, which led to her incarceration at the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderston, Va., for a year. Sad, but true. The singer's great, yet tragic, life is rich fodder for a dramatic evening of song and story.
Dozier does a superb job of channeling Holiday, weaving in and out of an alcohol induced haze, singing the hits with the same depth and emotional urgency that the chanteuse mustered herself. Yet Dozier doesn't try to create a caricatured picture of the femme fatale, but imbues the role with a genial likeableness. She is a stronger singer than actress, and seeing her perform the Holiday songbook is, in itself, worth a night at the theater. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a tour de force for any actress and Dozier gives Holiday her due.
Robertson's script has some glorious moments, but it also has its flaw. It is choppy, and at times, difficult to follow as he tries to reveal so much information to his audience about the star, dropping too many names and creating long expositions for his leading lady to deliver. A funny, yet poignant tale, about Holiday having to use the bathroom at a venue where she was performing that "didn't allow coloreds to use the toilet" suffers from a lengthy set-up for its eventual punchline.
The energy level of the production could also be stepped up a pace, which drags at times and is, in part, due to the dense stories that Dozier has to deliver. Director Dan Kelley has obviously helped this along, but it could use just a bit more of a nudge.
The live, three-piece band is spot on and helps to create the illusion of a small jazz club, circa 1959. David Nagy, who has a few speaking lines as Jimmy, Holiday's paramour, musical director, and handler, is extremely talented on piano, and is richly genuine as the concerned Jimmy. Nagy is also the production's musical director.
Kai Sanchez playing stand-up bass and Howard Moss on drums help to re-create the wonderful sounds of the era and provide Dozier with the essentials she needs to make Holiday's songs soar.
There are also many contemporary parallels, although unintentional since the play was written more than twenty years ago. It is difficult to not draw comparisons to recent contemporary singers who have suffered a similar demise such as Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse.
When Holiday died they found $750 taped to her leg, an advance for a series of autobiographical articles. She had 70 cents in her bank account. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill remembers Holiday as a victim of circumstance, a uniquely talented woman who overcame difficult odds, but who ended up unable to conquer other demons.
"Singing is living to me," Holiday says a few times in Lady Day. It just wasn't enough to keep her alive.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is at Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8306 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs, through August 26th. 954.344-7765 or www.stagedoor theatre.com.