Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Beck Center for the Arts
Review by Mark Horning | Season Schedule

Also see Mark's review of The Nether


Nicole Sumlin
Photo by Andy Dudik
It's a chilly March night in 1959 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the once renowned Emerson's Bar & Grill. Jimmy Powers (Ed Ridley) at the upright piano and Ray Carter (Bradford McGhee) on stand-up bass run through selections of blues and jazz numbers as the last of the packed house files in. The audience is here to witness one of the final performances of the singing legend Billie Holiday. Little does anyone realize that in less than four short months, Billie will have succumbed to cirrhosis brought on by a lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse.

Tonight, nothing like that is on anyone's mind as Lady Day (Nicole Sumlin) takes the stage in a shimmering white silk gown accented with diamond earrings, necklace and bracelets. She's a little shaky at first, but soon the magic that is her music takes over in a mesmerizing performance that has the audience sitting stock still through each and every note. This is the basis of the Beck Center for the Arts production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, directed by Scott Spence.

Between songs, Billie tells stories from her growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, to her early career when she was noticed by John Hammond at a Harlem nightclub in New York City and soon signed onto a recording contract with Brunswick that led to her concerts at Carnegie Hall. She talks about the men in her life, most of whom took advantage of her wealth and fame and abused her. She also talks matter-of-factly about her alcohol and drug problem (all the while sipping on a number of whiskeys on the rocks).

Her repertoire consists of fifteen of her greatest hits including, "When a Woman Loves a Man," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Crazy He Calls Me," "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)," "God Bless the Child," "Strange Fruit" and "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

A tremendous amount of work by set designer Cameron Michalak has gone into lending an air of authenticity to the show. The entrance to the Studio Theater sports an Emerson's Bar and Grill awning. There are four tables laid out in front of the stage, cabaret style, where a lucky few audience members can sit up close and personal. There is a bar stage left where Emerson's owner Em (Leonard Goff) sends a steady stream of drinks to the singer.

As for the cast, Ed Ridley and Bradford McGhee have a telepathic connection to Nicole Sumlin as they work their way through some of the most difficult jazz arrangements with effortless style. Having spent months channeling the speaking and singing energy of Lady Day, Nicole has nailed the part down. There is even an original Shure 55SH microphone on a rather decrepit stand, as one would find in such an establishment. Off in the stage left corner a blinking light (such as from a lighted sign) pulses on and off during the performance.

The Beck Center production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is a chance to see a falling star plummeting to earth, then suddenly extinguished. It is a biographical play about an immense talent whose life was cut short due to self-destructive behavior. A mixture of sadness and delight, it is an example of intimate theater at its best.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, through April 14, 2019, at Beck Center for the Arts, Studio Theater, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood OH. Tickets may be purchased online at going to www.beckcenter.org or by phone by calling 216-521-2540.


Privacy Policy