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Any music fan can tell you which artists they wish they’d seen live, and many even have a list of specific concerts: The Beatles at Shea Stadium, Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pops, Nirvana at Reading Festival, 2Pac and Biggie at Madison Square Garden, or The Sex Pistols on a boat on the Thames during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Video exists of many of these concerts, but that’s nothing compared to being in the room (or stadium, or riverbank) while they were happening. And then there’s a play like Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, now onstage with Philadelphia Theatre Company, which comes awfully close.
I’m deeply familiar with the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, having attended often since its 2007 opening. But I was astounded to be directed to a stage door and to walk into what truly felt like an old jazz club—complete with operating bar—set up on what is normally the theater’s playing space.
Two blocks from the bar
The real-life Emerson’s Bar & Grill, which was actually just called Emerson’s but was sometimes known as Emerson’s Tavern, Emerson’s Café, and Emerson’s Sunset Grille, closed around 1960, the year after Lady Day’s setting. Emerson’s, a Green Book-approved venue, was actually about two blocks from Suzanne Roberts, at 15th and Bainbridge Streets (this playbill mistakenly says 50th and Bainbridge), and it’s hard to tell if there are any photos of the original club on which scenic and lighting designer Thom Weaver could base his design—any search for Emerson’s results in page after page of results about various incarnations of Lady Day.
If you’ve been to any other intimate jazz club, in Philadelphia or otherwise, you know the vibe: small, round tables a little too close to each other; dramatic mood lighting; photos and posters on the walls featuring some of the venue’s notable past performers. (My only complaint with the set is that Weaver duplicates some of these photos and posters and, more than once, two of the same photos or posters were within my line of vision at the same time.)
But even the greatest set in the world can only get you so far. And for a production that is meant to capture a Billie Holiday concert, it might have been just as easy to be jarred out of the thoughtful setting as it was to be immersed in it. Fortunately, in this production, the immersion holds.
A transcendent debut
Philadelphia-based vocal artist Laurin Talese makes her theatrical debut as the titular character in Lady Day, and she does not disappoint. When many actors play a real person, we see the actor playing the part instead of the historical figure. But Talese loses herself in Holiday. Though she neither looks nor sounds like the legendary jazz singer, for the 90-minute runtime, I found myself unable to remember exactly what Holiday looked or sounded like because Talese’s performance was so captivating. Accompanied by Will Brock, who plays Holiday’s pianist Jimmy Powers, Talese performs the singer’s signature songs, including perhaps her best known “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.”
But Lady Day, set deliberately in the final months of Holiday’s life, isn’t just a tribute concert. Talese depicts not only the jazz great’s talent but also her trauma, monologuing about Holiday’s life and showing the physical and emotional scars of the singer’s drug and alcohol abuse. Although Robertson’s script can sometimes seem a little heavy on the biographical details, Talese performs these sections as adeptly as she sings.
This is at least partly a testament to director Jeffrey L. Page, who captures in the performer a bit of the same brilliant, quick-burning spark for which Holiday was known. And, without giving anything away, when the final few moments of the play give the audience what seems to be a glimpse into Holiday’s inner mind, it’s a moment so transcendent that I’ll be thinking about Talese’s Holiday for many years to come.
What, When, Where
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. By Lanie Robertson, directed by Jeffrey L. Page. $44-$74. Through April 30, 2023, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Accessible seating is available through pre-arrangement. Add a note to your reservation or contact PTC’s audience services department at (215) 985-0420, ext. 1. The Thursday, April 27, performance will be ASL interpreted, and the Saturday, April 29, performance will be both audio-described and open-captioned.
Masks are required at the performances on April 21, 23, 28, and 30.
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