Katrinah Carol Lewis succeeds in losing herself completely in the role of Billie Holiday for TheatreLab’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Her exceptional portrayal of the iconic jazz singer near the end of her tumultuous career has a lived-in, broken-down veracity that’s heartbreaking to watch. Whether the show succeeds in delivering a fully satisfying experience may depend on your expectations.
The Bar and Grill of the show’s title is a somewhat run-down Philadelphia nightspot where the once-distinguished Holiday stumbles through a set of her songs as best as she can before she gets “too juiced.” It’s 1959, 12 years after a jail sentence for narcotics possession pushed the already volatile star into a downward spiral of legal and emotional problems. Time, drugs and alcohol have robbed her voice of much of its vitality and left her confused and absentminded. Her piano player, Jimmy (Larri Branch), tries to keep her on task but she continually falls into recalling bitter moments from her past when she was victimized by racism or led astray by her first love.
While the evening unfolds over 90 intermission-free minutes, it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be the standard stage bio that some fans might desire. Big chunks of Holiday’s life are skimmed over or left out and the ongoing alcohol consumption makes Holiday a highly unreliable narrator. “Lady Day” is no jukebox musical either. Lewis delivers more than a dozen songs accompanied by Branch’s deft piano work, including landmarks of Holiday’s career such as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.” But other big hits such as “Trav’lin Light” and “Lover Man” are ignored. Also, as part of indicating how haggard Holiday is, Lewis gives a wandering rendition of one song and stops middelivery of another.
In defiance of more simplistic ways to tell Holiday’s story, playwright Lanie Robertson has chosen to offer a slice of the singer’s life at its nadir. The result is a fascinating character study and a great acting challenge that Lewis tackles with gusto. She expertly replicates Holiday’s improvisational singing style as well as her raspy, rambling speaking voice. Her physical tics convey the ravages of her hard life, and she projects venomous anger in her recounting of racial injustices she faced when touring with popular jazz bands such as Artie Shaw’s.
Branch makes a good stoic straight man, though his talents at the keyboard are what stand out. Scenic designer Matthew Bauserman has done a fine job replicating the simple staging and now-tacky-seeming décor of a ’50s nightclub. The lack of a persistent haze of cigarette smoke is the only thing preventing the show from capturing a completely authentic ambiance. While Michael Jarett’s lighting enhances the low-rent vibe, a more robust sound mix, designed by Kelsey Cordrey, would have been helpful in projecting Lewis’ vocals.
Director Deejay Gray has steered clear of unnecessary flourishes in telling this story. Lewis’ erratic delivery of awkward pauses and sudden outbursts reinforce an enchanting naturalism; it often feels like an actual Billie Holiday concert is unfolding. Though not exactly uplifting, “Lady Day” is never less than captivating. There’s no need to polish this rough diamond. S
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” will play TheatreLab’s Basement stage, 300 E. Broad St., through Dec. 12. Tickets and information are available at theatrelabrva.org.