Through January 29|
LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL Daemen University/MusicalFare Theatre
Since Lanie Robertson’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” opened an unbelievably long run nearly four decades ago in a long-gone theater on Franklin Street, the show has surfaced occasionally, often with Joyce Carolyn as doomed singer Billie Holiday.
Now, MusicalFare has brought the show back again in a cabaret format suited to the premise of the show, one night in Emerson’s in Philly.
Of course, there is the difference that MusicalFare’s air quality is far better than the impenetrable cigarette smoke of the jazz clubs of the late Fifties, like this.
While the show and its music hasn’t changed, its aura has.
Back then, it was the story of a skyrocketing music career wrecked by drugs and alcohol and a jail term in the federal pen in Alderson, West Virginia.
Looking back from the perspective of the age of George Floyd, it’s a very different story of a young Black woman of great promise rising from poverty because of her musical skill and then watching it all fall away,
As Alex McArthur’s Lady Day mentions several times in the show, those police officers are out to get her because she’s on parole and is behaving during this show as if zonked by something.
Aren’t we a whole lot more willing to believe cops would go out of their way for “a collar” of an entertainer of color with substance problems?
Holiday’s voice is clearly supposed to be failing and she is clearly under the influence, but the material is so good.
Lady Day performs some of the classic jazz numbers, going back to the great days of Bessie Smith, “The Empress,” who was certainly nailed by “the System.”
“The Empress” wrote much of her own material in those days, numbers like “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.”
Holiday wrote a lot of her own material also but she’s best known for the musical attack on lynching in the South, Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.”
McArthur does the number in this show but it can’t match Billie Holiday’s low, lamenting denunciation of racial murder.
There’s also “Baby Doll,” “God Bless the Child” and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.”
McArthur has a good voice but not the jazz night club voice we would have heard in a musical hot spot like Philly in those times.
This show has a strong back-up combo, George Caldwell, Mike Moser and Sabu Adeyola, with a background in Holiday’s music.
Caldwell runs that symbol of Buffalo jazz, the Colored Musicians Club, and teaches jazz at UB.
Legend has it that Holiday played in that landmark performance space along what is now called the Buffalo African American Heritage Corridor and lived in this community.
Modern tech means Lady Day’s music survives for the ages.
Still, there is nothing like a singer, three musicians and a legendary catalog of music in “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” while the audience sits around tables for four, with a drink, up close with the singer, the band and the music.
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