Despite her complicated past, songstress Billie Holiday is best remembered for the indelible mark she made on music and the American songbook. The same might be said of the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
The year is 1959 and the location is Emerson’s Tavern, a dive bar in South Philly, Pa. It is here that legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday performed one of her last concerts just months before succumbing to complications from a drug and alcohol addiction. It is also the setting for Lanie Robertson’s musical about Holiday, who was nicknamed Lady Day by saxophonist and friend Lester Young.
Like most bio-musicals, the success of this one hinges on the capabilities of its leading lady to find a balance between caricature and genuineness. This is a star vehicle for singer, songwriter, and actress Connie McCoy for sure, which is evident from the moment she emerges from the shadows of Jeannine Borzello’s dimly lit set. There is an authenticity to her measured and controlled performance that is truly absorbing and transcendent. She fully immerses herself into this role physically, vocally, and even spiritually, to encapsulate Holiday’s essence.
Backing up McCoy is a trio of masterful musicians led by Ronzel Bell on the piano, who plays Holiday’s band leader Jimmy Powers. Bell’s musicianship is outstanding, and his expressive portrayal of Powers is spot on. The trio, along with McCoy, intermix anecdotes with some of Holiday’s hits, including What a Little Moonlight Can Do, God Bless the Child, which Holiday wrote for her mother, and a rousing rendition of Gimme a Pigfoot, which was made famous by singer Bessie Smith.
But like many cabaret-style musicals, this show is not without its problems. Fortunately, director Deb Royals downplays some of the more disjointed elements of Robertson’s script to highlight the pivotal moments of Holiday’s life and demystify the icon we thought we knew. The finished product is a polished piece that rivals some of the professional productions in the area and raises the bar for future NRACT shows and performances.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs through July 28th at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre. For more information visit: www.nract.org.