In the world of jazz, the name — and voice — of Billie Holiday holds a very special place.
The events — and music — of her brief and primarily tragic life are captured in a solo show, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” which opened Nov. 6 in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Theatre.
The 2014 Broadway production was categorized by the Tony Award committee as a “play with music” rather than a musical, although many would call the latter a closer fit.
The action, of which there is little, is set in the titular location, a rundown bar in south Philadelphia in March 1959. The cast is small: Holiday (Dorea Britton) , her piano player Jimmy Powers (Roy Bronkema), the owner/bartender Emerson (Daniel J. Slattery), Holiday’s dog Pepi (Rabbit) and an uncredited drummer, and the full weight of the production falls on Britton, dramatically and vocally.
Directed by Mary Hubbard with Bronkema as music director, the atmosphere is set very properly by scenic designer Phil Patnaude. Entering the black box space, the smoky, dimly lit atmosphere immediately evokes that of a jazz club of the period. Most of the designated playing area is filled with cabaret tables at which “patrons” are seated, are served beverages and, as the 90-minute, no intermission play progresses, become a peripheral part of the action.
Such as it is, that action consists of Holiday wandering among the listeners, sharing bits and pieces of her life-to-date, not in chronological order, and returning to the microphone, with increasing unsteadiness, to sing.
The “score” consists of the songs of her life, some of which are little known (“Gimme A Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer”) and some of which have become classics (“God Bless the Child,” which she wrote with Arthur Herzog jr., and“ Strange Fruit”)
Details surround the vocals. Her childhood was horrific and her only joy came with her music and even that was tainted by racial prejudice and segregation. Three husbands used and abused her, increasing her dependence on alcohol and hard drug.
Born Eleanora Fagan, she took her professional name from silent screen star Billie Dove and the man reported to be her father, Clarence Holiday. Her earliest musical influences were Bessie Smith, “for the sound”, and Louis Armstrong, “for the heart.” Her closest friend, sax man Lester Young, gave her the nickname Lady Day.
Britton, studying music performance at IUSB, works hard in an exceedingly demanding role. However, her youth is not an asset here and the slightly nasal vocal quality and unique phrasing that were Holiday’s trademark are missing.
Sitting in deliberate shadow, Bronkema provides excellent instrumental support. Holiday’s trademark gardenias make a late appearance as does the well-behaved-but-way-too-large dog.
The March 1959 performance was like a farewell appearance. Four months later, Billie Holiday died. She was 44 years old.
“LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL” plays through Nov. 22 in the Warner Theatre at South Bend Civic Theatre, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.