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WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO: LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL” CHARMS AT THE HUMAN RACE

Review By David Brush of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”: Human Race Theatre

The bio-musical of musical artists is all the rage these days. With the recent success of “The Cher Show” and the upcoming “Tina” opening on Broadway, it seems “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” — a 1986 play with music by Lanie Robertson — was decidedly a great deal ahead of its time. After a wildly successful Audra McDonald-led Broadway revival in 2014 (and subsequent HBO airing), this inventive piece recreates one of Billie Holiday’s final concert appearances in the titular South Philadelphia bar in 1959. As the Human Race Theatre’s female-centric season opener (continuing through September 29), the brilliantly directed and fluidly performed show resonates in ways perhaps it never has been before.  The intimacy of this piece – which places the audience as patrons of the run-down Emerson’s – is the key to its urgency. As audience members, we are not merely watching a standard linear biopic approach but are instead thrown into the thick of things as participants to the legendary Holiday’s life and work. This play with music also uses Holiday to direct our attention to a systemic American racial divide as well as she publicly recounts such instances. The haunting “Strange Fruit” is a highlight and a reminder of Holiday’s strength and charisma.

Tanesha Gary as Billie Holiday in Human Race’s “Lady Day at Emerson”s Bar & Grill”

Bear in mind, dear audiences, that under Scott Stoney’s fluid direction, Robertson’s writing does not sugarcoat Holiday. All of the charm is there, yes – but so is the tawdry, throw-caution-to-the-wind core that defined both her life and career. It’s refreshing, honestly – and a lesson that more contemporary bio-musicals can glean from Robertson’s honesty. And under the always watchful eye of The Human Race and the added intimacy of The Loft, it’s as if “Lady Day” was written for this company in this space at this time.

And let’s discuss the luminescent Tanesha Gary whose performance as Holiday is nothing short of a master class in character embodiment. She is particularly poignant as Holiday begins to deteriorate. The star of this production, however, is the music. Gary’s nuanced vocals are supported by one of the tightest jazz trios I’ve heard in years – Keigo Hirakawa, Eddie Brookshire and Dayton’s legendary Deron Bell Sr. Additionally, the inspired idea to use Bell Sr. to serve as music director makes the piece decidedly Dayton – and decidedly relevant again. THIS is what great theatre companies do – understand their constituents and then program and design accordingly. (As I sat in the audience, I could not help but feel that – after the crushing summer this city has seen – the Human Race is providing a much-needed salve with a piece that celebrates humanity at its best – in a time where we often only see its worst.)

The warmth of Scott J Kimmins’ scenic design and John Rensel’s lighting design create a more than appropriate ambience that allows audience members to settle in at Emerson’s as Holiday herself does. “Lady Day” by way of The Human Race is an intimate portrait of an artist and the country who – for better or worse – shaped her. This production hits all of those notes.

Tickets and performance information for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” are available at www.humanracetheatre.org or by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630, and at the Schuster Center box office. Performances continue through September 29.