WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO: LADY DAY AT EMERSONâ€™S BAR & GRILLâ€ 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 â€œThe Cher Showâ€ and the upcoming â€œTinaâ€ opening on Broadway, it seems â€œLady Day at Emersonâ€™s Bar & Grillâ€ — 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 Holidayâ€™s final concert appearances in the titular South Philadelphia bar in 1959. As the Human Race Theatreâ€™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 â€“ which places the audience as patrons of the run-down Emersonâ€™s â€“ 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 Holidayâ€™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 â€œStrange Fruitâ€ is a highlight and a reminder of Holidayâ€™s strength and charisma.
Bear in mind, dear audiences, that under Scott Stoneyâ€™s fluid direction, Robertsonâ€™s writing does not sugarcoat Holiday. All of the charm is there, yes â€“ but so is the tawdry, throw-caution-to-the-wind core that defined both her life and career. Itâ€™s refreshing, honestly â€“ and a lesson that more contemporary bio-musicals can glean from Robertsonâ€™s honesty. And under the always watchful eye of The Human Race and the added intimacy of The Loft, itâ€™s as if â€œLady Dayâ€ was written for this company in this space at this time.
And letâ€™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. Garyâ€™s nuanced vocals are supported by one of the tightest jazz trios Iâ€™ve heard in years â€“ Keigo Hirakawa, Eddie Brookshire and Daytonâ€™s legendary Deron Bell Sr. Additionally, the inspired idea to use Bell Sr. to serve as music director makes the piece decidedly Dayton â€“ and decidedly relevant again. THIS is what great theatre companies do â€“ understand their constituents and then program and design accordingly. (As I sat in the audience, I could not help but feel that â€“ 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 â€“ in a time where we often only see its worst.)
The warmth of Scott J Kimminsâ€™ scenic design and John Renselâ€™s lighting design create a more than appropriate ambience that allows audience members to settle in at Emersonâ€™s as Holiday herself does. â€œLady Dayâ€ by way of The Human Race is an intimate portrait of an artist and the country who â€“ for better or worse â€“ shaped her. This production hits all of those notes.
Tickets and performance information for â€œLady Day at Emersonâ€™s Bar & Grillâ€ 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.