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Theater Review: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Alexis J. Roston as Billie Holiday in the Farmers Alley Theatre production "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"
Becky Klose Klose2u Photography
Alexis J Roston as Billie Holiday in the Farmers Alley Theatre production "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"

The current show at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo centers around an evening in the life of singer Billie Holiday. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

As I left the theatre after last Thursday evening’s performance of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” I found myself trying to explain why this captivating show works so well. I came up with at least eight reasons for the resounding success I had just seen at Farmers Alley Theatre.

One: A tour de force performance by Alexis J Roston, who channels the presence of Billie Holiday and brings this iconic singer to life in body, voice, and soul in a club appearance near the end of her life.

Two: The full range of Billie Holiday’s emotional life is manifested in both song and spirit though Roston’s portrait of Holiday. After an introduction by her pianist, Jimmy Powers, Roston, as Holiday, appears backlighted in a shimmering white gown. The haunting feeling that we are witnessing something akin to a resurrection on stage is palpable, as Roston holds her audience spellbound with the plaintive “I Wonder Where our Love Has Gone.”

Roston counters the initial mournful mood of this number with the feel-good song “When a Woman Loves a Man”. She continues to expand the range of her voice and her offerings with the up tempo “What a little Moonlight Can Do”. This opening set reveals both the lows and the highs of the singer and the human being who shares her life and musical career on stage in the evening to come.

Playbill cover for "Lady Day" at Farmers Alley Theatre
Farmers Alley Theatre
Farmers Alley Theatre
Playbill cover for "Lady Day" at Farmers Alley Theatre

Three: Roston brings episodes from Holiday’s past to life through narrative and action. In one of Holiday’s more traumatic moments, Roston recounts the details of a performance interrupted by a long-distance call informing Holiday of her father’s sudden death. As she listens to the caller’s terse request for instructions about disposal of his remains, Roston takes us with her. Her eyes search the numbers scribbled on the wall by the backstage phone for meaning. Finding none she gently sets the receiver down without reply. Her silent answer falls with a thud.

Four: Scenic Designer Dan Guyette’s intimate and atmospheric club setting allows Roston to take full advantage of her direct connection with the audience - revealing the soaring talent and the broken interior of this troubled human being.

Five: Alexis J Roston’s performance is an honest portrayal of Holiday’s steady progression into the slurred alcoholic stupor and drug-induced haze that characterized many of her appearances. Although Holiday’s descent is tough to watch, Roston consistently manages to display the singer’s indomitable spirit, her love for her music, and her longing for the home life she will never have.

Six: Through Holiday’s narrative of her life experience, Lanie Robertson’s script provides ample historical and social perspective for the journey that brought the singer to this point near the end of her life. Detailed is the history of the singer’s treatment at the hands of men who used and abused her, the discrimination she faced while performing on the road, and the miscarriages of the justice system that hampered her career.

Seven: Abdul Hamid Royal, as Jimmy, is a revelation as Holiday’s reserved piano player. In addition to leading the supporting trio, with M.J. Epperson on bass and Dave Van Haren on drums, Royal supports Holiday through musical cues, microphone placement, and most important, his gentle but firm attempts to reign in the singer’s addiction during her performance on stage. Although he says little, except for brief remarks to the audience, he makes his presence known as Billie’s final anchor in the world, through his posture at the keyboard and a few well-timed gestures.

Eight: Despite Holiday’s death shortly after her appearance at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in 1959, the music itself is the show’s most enduring element. Accompanied by Royal and his air-tight trio, Roston brings a dozen plus numbers to life through superb renditions in a variety of vocal styles associated with Holiday. At least two of the songs in the show are among the most covered and memorable of the twentieth century, including “God Bless the Child”, co-written by Holiday, and the chilling, horrific homage to the victims of lynching, “Strange Fruit”.

In all likelihood those fortunate enough to attend “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” before it closes May 15th will be able to cite reasons for this show’s appeal and success far beyond the eight that I have given.

Gordon Bolar was WMUK's General Manager from 2011 to 2016. He joined the station in 2006 as Development Director. After retiring as General Manager, Gordon has continued to review theater for WMUK.