By the time we meet the late, great jazz singer Billie Holiday, who was dotingly known as Lady Day, she is stumbling through a low-rent gig at the none-too-swish Emerson’s Bar and Grill in her native Philadelphia, already half in the bag and professionally washed up. But don’t for a minute think that seeing the famously fractured songbird decline isn’t worth the price of admission. Troubles and wobbles only lend magnificent woe to those warbles, and meeting Holiday at her nadir turns out to be the soul-stirring, gut-clenching stuff of meaningful theater.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill kicks off the Footlight Players season at their old home with a new name, the Queen Street Playhouse, freshly at the helm of executive director Brian Porter. With grace, grit, and deep reserves of feeling, the production demonstrates in song and story that the inimitable, achingly vulnerable Holiday is far more compelling slurry and broken than most of us are at the top of our game.
Directed by Kyle Barnette, the production stars the captivating, note-crushing Nakeisha Daniel as Holiday, no small task with the demands of the show’s playlist and its Broadway backstory. After all, Daniel follows on a pair of the most daunting heels in the business, not to mention vocal chords. Those belong to Broadway phenom Audra McDonald, who had a go at the role for the 2014 Broadway production, and has the Tony Award for Best Performance in a Leading Role to prove it.
McDonald or no, you had better boast some serious pipes and a fair bit of chutzpah to power through a harrowing Holiday hit parade, going down to the harrowing bone of famed numbers including “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Strange Fruit.” You may want to have some staying power, too.
What’s more, from our unsettling audience seats, we serve as the character’s bar patrons as well (there are even a couple of tables on stage with theater patrons). As Daniel directs her numbers and narrative our way, we bear witness to the singer’s darkest days as if she were in the midst of a candid, if one-sided, conversation. She does this mainly from a center-stage platform, showcasing her performance as well as that of Tyler Slim on the piano and Chase Bunes on drums.
As Holiday, Daniel punctuates a dozen or so song numbers with increasingly addled memories of childhood traumas, professional degradations and a stint in prison for drug possession, all the time shifting between rue and nonchalance. As the tales get all the more somber, the songs at times mirror those low notes, such as a mournful, mid-production “God Bless the Child” or a late-show, fatalistic, yet defiant “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
The shattered Holiday also wends regularly toward misty recollections of her mother, who she calls The Duchess, and her racially mixed roots dating back to an Irish plantation owner by the name of Fagan. She interweaves chilling toss-offs about rape and race-fueled humiliations. All the while, she entreats the lowkey Sim who nonetheless persists on his piano, even as Holiday confuses him with her former husband.
But that’s the thing of it. When Lady sings the blues, she has to feel. So she draws from all those wretched memories that are at once her undoing and her artistry. On all accounts, Daniel brilliantly, brightly delivers the gorgeous hot mess that is Holiday. With equal parts appeal and heartbreak, she channels the unlucky legend with masterly nuance, commanding all the distinct vocal and verbal characteristics that quickly conjure the singular, ill-fated songstress.
There is a structural hiccup, however. The production staggers in its roughly hour-and-a-half arc when Daniel is given an off-stage breather, and the downtime is filled with an instrumental piece. While Sim and Buse perform it well, it falls in a curiously unfortunate place, which resulted in more than one patron schooching out for the restroom before returning for the evening’s final coda.
Hiccup withstanding, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill makes for an absorbing, highly entertaining night at the theater, thanks in large part to Daniel’s outsize charm and impressive chops. And while that evening at Emerson’s did not bode well for Holiday, who died shortly thereafter, it bodes well for the Footlight Players as they regroup for a new chapter.