There are some musicians whose recordings, no matter how good, how beloved, don’t do them justice. Chief among them, I would argue, is Billie Holiday. If I ever had any doubt of that, they were erased Friday night as Alexis J. Roston sang part of Holiday’s repertoire in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Holiday, for those not familiar with her story, was a jazz singer who worked from the mid to late Thirties until her deathin 1959. She succumbed at the age of 44 to the effects of drug and alcohol addiction. She sang with several of the big bands and then on her own, an outspoken woman facing the racial politics of society and particularly the music industry.
Lady Day, a nickname saxophonist Lester Young gave her, is based on a single show at a small club in Philadelphia. It is, essentially, a glorious cabaret act – and those who enjoy cabaret should have a swell time seeing this at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Between songs, Holiday talks about her life and why she, with 22 Carnegie Hall appearances, is working a miniscule venue in a city she doesn’t like.
Roston is absolutely alight with the Holiday character. Her voice is warm and she takes charge of the songs with great confidence, not just the ones everyone knows, like “God Bless the Child” but more obscure ones as well. Yes, “Strange Fruit,” which is about a lynching, is included. It’s a bravura performance, not only with the music but with the acting as well. Because this takes place about four months before Holiday’s death in a Harlem hospital, she’s well into the throes of her decline, which we see over the course of the evening. It was a painful life that music lit up for her, so the contrast is a great one.
This is not a one-woman show, it’s a joint effort and foremost among the other contributors is Abdul Hamid Royal, who plays Jimmy Powers, her music director. He doubles in strings, so to speak, as the conductor and show’s music director. Kaleb Kirby is on drums and Benjamin Wheeler plays bass, all fun, but there’s lots of delight from watching Powers’ reaction to his employer and hearing Royal’s keyboard work.
It’s been argued that this script tries to cram too many biographical details in. But for anyone not very familiar with Holiday’s story, and these days, that’s most people, it gives another dimension to the story.
Leda Hoffman directs the show for Max & Louie Productions. Patrick Huber’s lighting contributes a great deal, while remaining subtle enough to be almost organic. Roston’s dress and elbow-length mitts are the showpiece here from Dorothy Jones’ costume design. First rate work, all around, and an enjoyable 95 minutes or so. No intermission, so time for a late dinner afterward to discuss one’s awe at the performances.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
through March 4
The Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand Blvd.
Max & Louie Productions