A Review

Good Morning Heartache

By R. J. Donovan

Billie Holiday was one of the jazz world's most iconic figures.  While a gifted vocalist, she was plagued by hardship, almost from birth.  Born when her mother ("The Duchess") was not more much than a girl herself, she bounced around as a child, was later put in protective custody, endured rape, worked in a brothel and spent time in federal prison. She also struggled with drugs, alcohol and bad relationships.

Still, her distinctive sound and unique delivery made her the Queen of Song around the world.  And she performed everywhere from smoky out of the way clubs to Carnegie Hall.  Born Eleanora Fagan, her tumultuous life was the subject of the motion picture "Lady Sings The Blues."

Lyric Stage Company of Boston is currently presenting "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," the recreation of one of Holiday's final club engagements at one of Philadelphia's most renowned jazz spots.  

As Ms. Holiday works her way through the late night show in March of 1959 (four months before her death at the age of 44), she sings some of her biggest hits while drifting through reminiscences about her life and career. She is backed by a lone pianist (played with style by Chauncey Moore), who keeps her on track.

As the evening wears on in the cabaret-style club, she drinks more, becomes more immersed in her past, ultimately has a breakdown and walks off stage, unable to continue. When she returns, it's clear that she's been shooting up backstage to give her the edge to keep going. This is the vulnerable Holiday that many remember, and the addition of the gardenia to her hair makes the image complete.

The book by Lanie Robertson is a graphic history lesson. From the snapshot of life for a poor black child, to memories of Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw and Bessie Smith, to the inhuman treatment experienced in the days when black entertainers weren't even allowed to walk through the front doors of the very clubs in which they performed, the show paints a vivid picture of one life that represented many. 

Boston's gifted Jacqui Parker plays Holiday with grace and sensitivity. She is profane and matter-of-fact in describing the horrors of her life, which only intensifies the emotion of the incidents. She is haltingly honest, and yet capable of great humor -- in particular, when discussing the shabby treatment she endured in an Alabama restaurant where she was refused use of a bathroom.  The story plays out in one of the biggest laughs of the night, but the story is a pathetic look at our past. Parker's rendition of the story is spot on. Despite the humiliation, Holiday still believed that one person was no better than another.

And then there's the music.  The Billie Holiday songbook runs from "T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do" to "Crazy He Calls Me," "When A Woman Loves A Man,"and "What A Little Moonlight Can Do," to the classics "Don't Explain" and "God Bless The Child." 

The script cleverly, and sometimes very subtly, uses the songs to punctuate life moments. "God Bless The Child" comes to underscore her relationship with her mother while "Strange Fruit," which is actually about lynchings, gives dimension to the story about the Alabama restaurant.  Parker does not attempt an impersonation of Holiday, but she captures her essence.

Director Spiro Veloudos has Parker prowling the club's the little stage, often stepping out and around the playing area's cafe tables to sit, lean, smoke and drink.  This not only emphasizes the club setting but also pushes the show's intimate nature by moving Parker as close as possible to the theater-goers. She even calls to "Emerson," the club's owner, off stage in such a way that you almost believe he's standing there watching her.

Although the play has been performed previously in two acts, it's an intermissionless evening at Lyric, which definitely serves the flow of the experience. Skip Curtiss has designed the cafe set, which is lit by designer Karen Perlow to take us back in time. Adding a haze of wispy smoke to the air as the audience takes their seats in is a nice touch.

While the show is compelling throughout, I found it somewhat challenging to connect with the first twenty minutes or so.  It took time to buy into the premise.  But the last section of the show, from Billie's backstage drug use to the end, is riveting. And the final, silent fade out is so haunting, it will bring a lump to your throat.

Although "Lady Day" has its humorous moments, it's ultimately a very emotional look at a woman who weathered much, suffered a lot and lived to sing. 

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" is at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, through April 24. For information, call 617-585-5678.

-- OnStage Boston




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