Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, by Lanie Robertson. Directed by Dina Janis. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Marinda Anderson; photo: Taylor Crichton
"The impossible will take a little while."
Marinda Anderson and Kenney M. Green; photo: Taylor Crichton
Living out your own life fantasies on stage is not just for actors, but for singers as well. Living through the awful parts and coming out the other side able to sing a song whose sweetness transports both your listener and yourself from despair to delight is a very special form for jazz singers. Eleanora Fagan Gough, born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia and known professionally as Billie Holiday was one of those lucky ones. Sadly she was also the unluckiest lady in the business. She died at age 49 from problems related to drug and alcohol abuse just three years after her remarkable autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues,"was published in 1956 and shortly after appearing at a small club in the city of her birth, Emerson's Bar & Grill.
In the play by Lanie Robertson, set in that South Philly nightclub, Miss Holiday gives the performance of her lifetime, performing the story of her lifetime for an audience that really doesn't care about her history. They've come for the music and in spite of themselves, they come to love the Lady Day, her nickname, for every poor choice, for every sour note in her life. We are the audience, not just for a play about this, but for the singer in that club so long ago. We play our part just like she plays hers. In this instance, under the demanding direction of Dina Janis, the "she" in the story is the actress Marinda Anderson portraying Billie near the end of her nights of stardom.
Marinda Anderson looks a lot like Billie at this stage in her life. She doesn't really sound like her, but we get the idea because she does move into the singer's own personal style of presentation and that, ultimately, is enough. This isn't an actor mimicing another person. This is an actress handing us that person on a copper platter with its plating wearing off in spots. Baser metals are the substance here and in songs like "Easy Livin'" and "T'aint Nobody's Biz-ness," and "Strange Fruit," so quintessentially Lady Day, we watch the patina fade off the presence of the heroine of this tale revealing all of her flaws and all of the factors that made her so very special.
She is supported by Kenney M. Green at the piano in the role of Jimmy Powers, jazz musician, accompanist, chauffeur, protector and friend of Lady Day. Green plays one mean piano and his solos are delicious. He stands for her, rallies her, lifts her up with his music and with his strong arms. When her own heroin habit threatens to take her down before our eyes he is there to cradle her and bring her back to the microphone center stage. He is, perhaps, the first man in her life to be supportive and not abusive. Green plays all of this with ease and charm and a naturalness that helps with the illusion we need to see the truth. Mr. Green, one should say, as Mr. Powers, is a champion and player of great power.
As for Ms. Anderson, seen on this stage in "Intimate Apparel," by Lynn Nottage last summer she is fulfilling the promise seen in her work back then. I wrote in 2015 "Now and again I wish for regional TONY Awards so that an actress of this calibre could be honored for outstanding work; this is one of those times."This is another. She has grown immensely in her power to communicate the emotional pangs of glory lost. She has become the actress she needed to be with this play. She has the power to recreate the living in their own fullness of being. She is the earth-mother, the Goddess, the stricken woman whose sickness cannot be contained in only one body, only one soul. It was Holiday's extreme power to communicate all of this that is transforming the actress playing her here. The playwright's choices for this appearance of Lady Day, are secure in the graceful fingers, the tortured body, of this actress bringing the singer back to life for us, the singer's audience.
I like magic in my theater and this production gives me the magic lost in other place and other times. I am its recipient and its appreciator. I am grateful for this gift of magic in the music and in the deteriorating hull that contains all of its precious gems.
Marinda Anderson; photo: Taylor Crichton
Lady Day, Miss Billie Holiday
Director Dina Janis displays an acute understanding of Holiday's problems and a deeper acuity for moving her actress into and out of the best and worst of the singing star's personality. In spite of the vocal differences, there is never a question in mind that this woman is Billie Holiday. Janis has clearly given the actress scope to create her own Billie. She has equally clearly been there the whole way to keep her Billie and never Marinda. There are no failures here, no moments of the actress betraying her character to rally as herself and gather strength. Instead there is the constant deterioration of a human soul in this performance and that is due, in no small part, to the excellent teaming of actress and director.
On the small stage of Emerson's Bar & Grill, designed by Alexander Woodward, Billie Holiday, dressed sumptuously by Tracy Christensen, Miss Holiday gives us her all with her key light shining and her mood lighting stunning the story out of her mind, all illumination designed by Michael Giannitti, this is as perfect a production, as keen a realization, as any I've seen and ever will see. Not only should the playwright be satisfied, but Lady Day herself should be nodding her head, musically, and rhythmically, to the excellence on the stage at the Dorset Playhouse.
I know how this play works. I've seen it several times before. This time, though, there is no play on stage, there is only life playing itself out before us. While I may like magic, I love life. I love this production.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont through September 3. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line to their website at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.