Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Phoenix Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Quilters, The Gershwin Experience: Here to Stay, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Stupid Fucking Bird, and Now. Here. This.


Yolanda London
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There are hundreds of plays and musicals focused on real people and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is actually a combination of both—a play with music. Lanie Robertson's drama whisks us back to 1959 to a bar in South Philadelphia where Billie Holiday is giving what will ultimately be her last performance. Phoenix Theatre's production features a mesmerizing performance by Yolanda London, who pours her heart and soul into her nuanced portrayal of this woman whose body was destroyed by years of abuse from alcohol and heroin.

Robertson sets the play just four months before Holiday's death from heart failure and cirrhosis but years after the horrible incident of her trial and conviction for drug possession that we will hear Holiday talk about several times in the show. That event led to a year-long stay in prison and also limited where Holiday was able to perform. The fact that it all happened in Philadelphia adds plenty of fuel to Holiday's fire as she regales us with stories of the highs and lows of her life. But she also sings, performing over a dozen songs from her repertoire.

Robertson's play is a bit of an odd duck—part life remembrance, part cabaret act—that also shoehorns in just about every important detail from Holiday's life in order for anyone who doesn't already know about this famous woman to have a better understanding of her and what she endured through her life. While it does tend to be overstuffed, meanders a bit, and seems a tad overlong even though it only runs 90 minutes, it is also filled with warmth and humor and some heartbreaking stories. The stories focus on her difficult relationship with her mother and the sometimes abusive relationships with the men in her life; her admiration for the two people who served as her musical idols growing up—Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong; and the racism she encountered when touring with a white band led by Artie Shaw.

Yolanda London gives an exquisite performance as Holiday. While I'm no Holiday expert, I am familiar with her music, and London's delivery of these songs is stellar, with impeccable phrasing and a vocal inflection that is uncanny in its resemblance. London performs each of these songs exquisitely, with both passion and pain. While her singing is impressive, it is in her storytelling that London comes even more alive with a rawness and edge to her remembrances. She is giving one of the most breathtaking performances I've seen in quite some time.

Geibral Elisha plays Jimmy Powers, Holiday's partner at the time, and he impressively leads the jazz trio with Teron Rushing on drums and Chris Rose on bass. The lush, evocative music these three make is on par with London's performance.

Director Pasha Yamotahari doesn't make one false move. His attention to detail is impressive and concise. I especially like how he has London focus on the '50s microphone in front of her when she sings her numbers, instead of gazing around the room, as if she is lost in the music. Joel Birch's scenic design features a raised platform with a few period touches that works well to evoke a jazz club of the 1950s, and a giant gardenia, Holiday's signature flower, hovering overhead. While the setting may be a little too upscale for the true Emerson's Bar & Grill, which I believe was more of a dive bar, it still works. Daniel Davisson's lighting design is exquisite in how it echoes and plays to the moods of the songs and the highs and lows of Holiday's stories. Josh Lutton's stunning costumes, including a ravishing white dress for London, and Terre Steed's hair and make-up designs magically transport us back to the period.

Dark, seductive, astonishing, and heartbreaking are just a few adjectives to describe London's stellar performance. While the play has a few shortcomings, London's superb take on this legendary woman is a portrayal you will not want to miss.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill runs through April 3rd, 2016, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at http://phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151

Pasha Yamotahari: Director
Marie Quinn: Sound Designer
Daniel Davisson: Lighting Designer
Joel Birch: Scenic Designer
Josh Lutton: Costume Designer
Terre Steed: Hair / Make-up Designer
Tyler Welden: Resident Properties Designer
Mark Reynolds: Director of Production
Karla Frederick: Associate Production Manager
Katherine Roll Lang*: Stage Manager

Cast:
Billie Holiday: Yolanda London*
Jimmy Powers: Geibral Elisha
Drums: Teron Rushing
Bass: Chris Rose

*Members of Actors' Equity Association


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