March, 1959. In a run-down bar in South Philly, the celebrated jazz singer Billie Holiday gives what will be one of her last performances. It’s difficult to watch her take the stage. Brought low by drugs and alcohol, she moves like a woman twice her 44 years. She shuffles around a bit, removes her mink coat, and takes a couple verbal swipes at her pianist Jimmy Powers (Abdul Hamid Royal, also the show’s music director). And then she goes to the microphone.
In Lanie Robertson‘s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill on the Mainstage at Portland Center Stage at the Armory, Deidrie Henry becomes the Billie Holiday her fans came to see. The minute she opens her mouth she transforms from sick old woman to a jazz legend of stature and dignity.
Between songs, Holiday sips vodka and shares bits of her life. Since she died before most of us were around, this is new information from a jazz icon about whom we knew little save her legendary voice. While her stories often are crass and bitter, and tainted with abuse, racism, and deprivation, her drunken monologues also evoke some of the magic of her glory days, and reveal a deep longing for the love, home, and children she never had.
Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and company have created a special ambiance with smoky mirrors that reflect the audience, giving the feeling of a stage surrounded by people. Kudos to Paul Toben and Isabella Byrd for lighting design, and to sound director David Budries. Costume designer Raquel Barreto dresses Ms. Henry in a simple, elegant white gown befitting a legend.
Directed by Bill Fennelly, Deidrie Henry dons Billie Holiday’s signature white gardenia and sings her way into our hearts and souls backed by Royal, percussionist Charles Neal, and bass player James H. Leary. Her hands shake as she lights another cigarette, takes another swig of vodka, and talks to us like we’re old friends. Like we understand. It is a riveting performance.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs through July 1 at Portland Center Stage, and concludes the theatre’s 2017-2018 season.