Playhouse Stage Company’s “Lady Day” Flies High on the Wings of Song

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” with a book by Lainie Robinson has picked up quite a bit of acclaim on its own, if not nearly much as the legendary singer upon whom this biographical musical is based on. That would be Billie Holiday and the play with music is purported to be one of her last singing engagements, an appearance at a dive bar in South Philly in March of 1959. She sings and tells stories of her life accompanied by her pianist Jimmy Powers played by Playhouse regular Brandon Jones.

The play opened off-Broadway in 1986 with Lonette McKee who was later replaced by S. Epatha Merkerson from “Law & Order” fame. More recently it was produced to great acclaim with Audra McDonald in a 2014 revival on Broadway which was also staged in London and filmed for HBO. Audra McDonald won her record 6th Tony Award for this role and became the only actor to win in all 4 acting categories with this Tony.

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Gina-Simone Pemberton as Billie Holiday and Brandon Jones as Jimmy Powers
Photo by Richard Ruotolo

The play opens with Brandon Jones as her accompanist Jimmy Powers taking his place behind the onstage piano dressed nattily in a pretty plaid suit and oversized fedora. He plays her note and awaits her entrance which is not forthcoming. After a scuffle behind the curtain with her cursing Philly, Gina-Simone Pemberton enters resplendent in a white gown, gloves and heels, accented with jewels on her neck and dress straps. The perfect costumes are by Ashley-Simone Kirchner. There is a slight distance about her and an almost imperceptible stutter in her step before she steps down onto the catwalk where she will spend the evening. There are a standing microphone and a stool on it holding a bottle of Tanqueray, and a gardenia in a box.

Almost immediately we understand we are in for a night of pathography and music. If Gina-Simone Pemberton is far too lovely to play the 43-year-old Holiday who must have been ravaged by drugs and drink at this stage, she nearly downs a quart of gin during the evening, that’s no matter. She gets her breathless, excited delivery and distinctive phrasing both in her singing and the many stories of her troubled life. There is an extended sequence when she is talking about doing drugs with her first husband which leads into a gorgeous rendition of “God Bless the Child” which she follows with a long drink of gin, emptying the glass. She refills the glass, goes to set it down on her stool, looks at it and drinks again. There was more communicated about the solace and inadequacy of love, art and drink to heal and comfort a wounded soul in need in that 5 minutes than many plays have in two acts.

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Gina-Simone Pemberton as Billie Holiday
Photo by Richard Ruotolo

The playwright is very strong in the stories and racial attitudes that Billie Holiday confronted touring with the all-white band led by the clarinetist Artie Shaw. At points she has Billie declaring that “In this country, being arrested is a colored tradition” and “Since they set us free, they don’t know what to do with us.” Her account of confronting a “maitress-d’” while looking for a restroom to relieve herself is alternately funny, triumphant and heartbreaking.

Gina-Simone Pemberton is tremendous in every aspect. She has the pugnacious charm that lights up the saloon and can josh easily and profanely with Brandon Jones as Jimmy, the unseen Al Emerson behind the bar or the audience. She can be touchingly bereft and pathetic at the many sad stories that the playwright jams into the evening and with a shrug of her bare shoulder fly into the clouds and touch greatness with her voice especially on “Crazy He Calls Me” and “Strange Fruit.” She deteriorates through the course of the program and her wish, late in her evening cups for a home, kids and a club that she can own to sing in is deeply moving when you think that this 20th century master who revolutionized jazz singing felt the simplest American dream was inaccessible to her. Her claim that “singing is living for me” is proven again and again throughout the evening and there’s an expressionistic coda in which she is represented as a pure instrument, free and transcendent which is gorgeous.

Brandon Jones (who played Tobias in PSC’s revelatory “Sweeney Todd” last fall) does a terrific job as Jimmy Powers her accompanist. He cajoles her onstage and strives to keep her on task, he waits patiently and cues her repeatedly. He has a brief dialogue scene comforting and reassuring her that she can go on after her music has shaken her to the core. Mostly he is just there and playing piano brilliantly especially when he breaks out the boogie woogie with “Give Me a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.”

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Gina-Simone Pemberton as Billie Holiday
Photo by Richard Ruotolo

Timothy Clow has done the minimal set with a tufted bar and catwalk with scalloped lights reaching out into the floor of the Music Hall, surrounded by table seating which is very comfortable. Lighting design is by Mike Hanrahan who aids the final image greatly. Direction is by the summer Playhouse Mainstage maestro Michael LoPorto who shapes and paces the evening very well. If there are some lumpy stretches, the play just has too much of the singer’s tragedies stuffed into the monologues. His work with Pemberton is superb and the transitions into the songs are more often than not, breathtaking.

Congratulations and thanks must go to Playhouse Stage Producing Artistic Director Owen Smith and his company for scheduling this tribute to an American genius of song and run it in repertory with the rollicking “Jerry Lee Lewis Versus Jerry Lee Lewis.” He has maximized Playhouse’s schedule, his use of the Hall and his invaluable contributions to creating more great nights of Capital Region theater. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a transporting escape to the heavenly realm of artistic expression and ecstasy through music. We have never needed the trip so badly.

Through 3/15

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