You know the name and you probably recognize the voice, but do you know the story of the gardenia-sporting star behind the microphone?
Born in 1915, Billie Holiday came to personify jazz music in the mid-twentieth century, thanks to her textured alto that mimicked the instrumental scat of her favorite musicians yet conveyed a wholly human experience and emotional history.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, currently on stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks to June 7, tells Holiday’s story through music and compelling personal monologues. The play, which premiered on Broadway in 2014, takes place at the end of the singer’s troubled life, but is presented as a dreamy return to a South Philadelphia bar that she frequented before her career unraveled. As she sings through a repertoire of her greatest hits, she slowly deteriorates until there’s nothing left but a spotlight, a microphone, and the memory of her music.
|Tracey Conyer Lee in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Photo by Alicia Donelan|
As Dramaworks’ season closer, Lady Day is an ethereal and remarkable hour-and-a-half of theater characterized by an effective performance by Tracey Conyer Lee, masterful musical direction, and a stunning set design.
Though two other musicians are on stage the entire time, Lady Day is truly Billie Holiday’s show. As the singer, Conyer Lee delivers an emotional performance that evolves as she dives deeper and deeper into the singer’s past. Her true strength resides in her vocal ability, which is spectacular. She excels at capturing Holiday’s vocal nuances without directly mimicking her styling. The highpoint of the entire show is a haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit,” in which Conyer Lee paints a vivid and terrifying image of southern racism.
A lot of the production’s success can be attributed to musical director Brian P. Whitted, who also appears onstage as Holiday’s pianist, Jimmy Powers. Whitted frequently brings Conyer Lee back from the brink of destruction, inviting her to return to the microphone with playful piano licks and mournful chords. Buttressed by bass player Phil McArthur, Lady Day‘s music is transformative and leads the audience on an emotional rollercoaster that surges past favorites like “God Bless the Child” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” in favor of more emotionally resonant songs like the aforementioned “Strange Fruit” and “Deep Song.”
While the music provides the soundtrack for this time-traveling show, the set and production design sets the mood. Scenic designer Jeff Cowie and scenic artist Rebecca Pancoast create the quintessential 1950s nightclub, complete with sputnik chandeliers that extend into the audience and a vintage jukebox—not that you need one when Billie Holiday’s in town. A special shout out to lighting designer Kirk Bookman for a beautifully lit closing moment that saw Holiday illuminated in a quickly dying spotlight, the perfect visual metaphor for the show.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill only continues through this Sunday, June 7, but it isn’t your last opportunity to see amazing musical theater at Palm Beach Dramaworks this summer. The Musicals in Concert series includes Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music from July 10-19 and 110 in the Shade from August 14-23. To learn more, visit palmbeachdramaworks.org