It is 1959, four months before the legendary Billie Holiday finally succumbed to the ravages of drugs, alcohol and abusive men that pervaded the talented singer’s too-short life. The scene is Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a seedy Philadelphia bar where she used to pack in the crowds when her career was just beginning to take off. It is late at night, and Holiday (Lauren LaStrada) has already had more than a few drinks when she takes the stage, to the chagrin of her loyal pianist cum caretaker, Jimmy Powers (Alvin Waddles).
So begins Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, the 2017-18 season opener at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET). Directed by Travis Lynch, the show delivers 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment in the form of songs and patter covering anything and everything the singer feels moved to talk about. We learn a lot about Holiday’s life, from the tragedy of being raped at age 1, to the influence of music greats Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, to the racism she endured as the only African American performer traveling the country with Artie Shaw and his band. Nothing is off limits, including her heroin use and the year she spent in jail after taking the fall for her boyfriend’s narcotics possession charge. We learn that she is performing at Emerson’s because, as a result of her criminal record, she was deprived of her cabaret card, which had allowed her to perform in the New York nightclubs that were the mainstay of her livelihood.
As a performer, Billie Holiday at her worst was probably better than most other singers at their best, and Lauren LaStrada brings that talent to life with deft and flair, including the squeaky-hinge voice that was Holiday’s trademark, especially during her later years.
Waddles, who is also the show’s musical director, is the perfect foil to LaStrada’s uninhibited persona. While his lines are few, his expressions speak volumes filled with concern, trepidation and, ultimately, resignation, as the effects of the drugs and alcohol Holiday has been steadily consuming throughout the night become increasingly apparent. At one point, when LaStrada has left the stage, he entertains the audience with a solo number that left us wishing we could have seen more of his musical prowess.
Holiday’s set list ranges from her classic “God Bless the Child” to the upbeat “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” which she unexpectedly reprises later in the show as Waddles attempts to steer her back to the songs they have agreed to perform. Other musical highlights were “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness” and the
“I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone.” Throughout the production, LaStrada does not miss a beat, even when she returns from a trip backstage with one of the elbow-length gloves Holiday used to wear to conceal her needle tracks down around her wrist. With a sigh and look of resignation, Waddles straightens her glove, returns to the piano and the show goes on.
The set, by Elspeth Williams, is the perfect re-creation of a ’50s club way past its prime, with its tiny stage, jukebox and well-stocked bar. Costumes, which consisted of one of Holiday’s signature white evening gowns and club-appropriate suit and tie wear for Waddles, are by Mary Copenhagen, with lighting design by Neil Koivu and sound design by Jim Davis.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs through Oct. 29 at the JET Theatre in the West Bloomfield JCC. $44/student and senior discounts available. Ages 14 and up. (248) 788-2900; jettheatre.org.