"Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
It’s jazz very much as it should sound, at Long Wharf these days--jazz combined with the tortured life story of the legendary Billie Holiday.
Ernestine Jackson takes on the role and makes it her own, as she talks and sings her way through the singer’s tragic life. Billy Holiday’s life was the classic tale of rags to riches, obscurity to fame, but with a dark take to it all—neglect, poverty, childhood rape, brothels, reform school, prison, drugs, alcohol and a man who done her wrong. Along the way Holiday developed her distinctive musical style—using blues and the Bessie Smith/Louie Armstrong influences—to develop her own way with a song --her own ability to improvise and to reconstruct melodies. And with it she rose to the top.
Whether Jackson gives a true rendition of Holiday, it is difficult to say (never having seen the original). But she creates a wondrously alive creature, with all the contradictions and complexities of a human being. Her language is coarse, with obscenities in every line (befitting a brothel graduate), and her discourse is totally unedited and spontaneous, much as her accompanist Jimmy (Darryl G. Ivey) would prefer her to be discreet. Even their sex life is shared with the audience, as Holiday says, “Jimmy’s my main man.” “We all friends here,” she says, pointing to the audience, by way of explanation.
The book, written by Lanie Robertson, sets the scene in Philadelphia, at an old bar where Holiday once performed. Now down on her luck, enmeshed in drug addiction, she is attempting something of a comeback. But she cannot get through the evening, despite Jimmy’s alarm, without a drink in her hand and a backstage fix. The time, in fact, is just a few months before Holiday died at the age of 44.
Jackson’s voice, with its smoky edge, is all one could hope for. Whether she belts out a note or drops to a whispering intensity, the song is pure Holiday, thanks also to Danny Holgate’s musical arrangements and Ivey’s musical direction. Between the patter, the painful recollections, are the songs, among them, Holiday’s own “God Bless the Child” and her signature piece “Strange Fruit.”
Under Lonnie Price’s fine direction, this show is blessed with a musical back-up trio---not only Ivey at the keyboard, but Jesse Hameen II on the drums and bassist Phil Bowler. It all comes together beautifully. If there is any criticism of “Lady Day,” it is that the show justifiably calls for the intimacy of a supper club or bar, not the spacious Long Wharf stage. But Price and company succeeds to a great extent in overcoming the drawback and creating that authentic atmosphere.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 1, 2005