By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
Channeling the great jazz singer Billie Holiday has proven to be Sharon Martin’s forte. When she last performed the title role in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill five years ago, Martin garnered raves for her performance as the beaten-down and drug-addled singer. The setting of the play by Lanie Robinson is the fictional Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a seedy Philadelphia nightclub, and the time is but a few months before the jazz singer’s heart was to cease beating and her liver shut down due to cirrhosis.
“Lady Day,” as Billie Holiday was known to her fans and friends, was spiraling out of control due to the pain she experienced in a prejudiced world that resulted in rampant alcoholism and her reliance on heroin to kill that pain. According to the well-researched work by Robinson, the incredible talent she possessed was slipping away from her note by note. Despite success through her recordings and in live performances at venues like Carnegie Hall, Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) experienced a lifetime of battling prejudice and trying to prove herself worthy of a domineering mother.
We witness part of her final unhinging as she performs in front of the audience of which we are a part. We come to understand her frustration as she deals with the consequences of her drug use – a jail term in federal prison – which results in the revocation of her New York City Cabaret Card and her privileges of performing before any New York public crowd.
Martin is required to model Holiday’s singing style and the effect her dipsomania had on it. Critics have noted that the richness of her voice which marked her early career gave way to an almost shaky, raspiness in her later years that still showed occasional signs of resonance and brilliance.
Directed by Tommye Myrick, the play includes some of Holiday’s most iconic works such as the upbeat “Moonlight Becomes You,” the plaintive anthem “God Bless the Child” and the mournful dirge “Strange Fruit.” The character of Lady Day devolves from a self-assured professional in the first act into an insecure and besottled
Joining her on stage is Robert Perry, who plays pianist Jimmy Powell, the man the singer seems to connect to more than anyone else on stage. He has to play around her bad behavior sometimes and leads the other two members of the trio – Boston Blackie, played by musical director Michael Woods on drums, and John Lowery, portrayed by bassist Raddy Jones.
Also, making his stage debut is former WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson, who turns in a well-crafted performance as Hal Emerson, the owner of the Philadelphia joint where Lady Day and the trio are playing. Robinson oils his way around the audience making small talk as he sets up his character, who effectively interacts with Martin’s stage persona during various points of her two-act presentation.
The set is simple, yet evocative of the kind of gritty nightclub Robinson set for the play. Dane Rhodes acted as set, lighting and sound designer to great effect.
But the fact is – as Audra McDonald demonstrated in her sixth Tony Award for the very same role two years ago – playing the role of Billie Holiday requires the strength of an exacting actress and the vocal agility of a strong singer. Martin takes on the persona of the doomed jazz singer with gravitas, yet she is not some emotionally distant caricature. She is a living and breathing star on the downslide, who cannot control her actions and is enslaved to both drink and drugs.
This is a riveting performance and worthy of consideration of true lovers of jazz and blues music.
The final performances of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill take place this weekend on Friday and Saturday May 19-20 at 8:00 p.m. and on Sunday, May 21, with a matinee at 3:00 p.m. For more information call 504-33-6748