‘Lady Day’ a captivating musical tour de force – Shaw Local

First introduced to the brilliant Billie Holiday via Diana Ross’ film “Lady Sings the Blues”, I’ve been a grateful fan of fallen star Holiday who influenced everyone musically from Lou Rawls to Sting.

Whether you call it a play with music, a musical or a biographical account, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” currently playing at the Metropolis in Arlington Heights, is nothing short of mesmerizing. Written by Lanie Robertson, who has a knack for writing about iconic artists and the societal issues they face, “Lady Day” was a 2014 winner of Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. It’s an extraordinary visit with the first black singer to face an all-white big band in her very last appearance. And it’s also extraordinary thanks to the talents of director Anthony Sims and performers Mardra Thomas and Reggie Thomas.

Lasting just under 85 minutes, it’s an intimate journey that honors Billie Holiday and “truths of the past”; as Sims describes the production: “a mural or mosaic for and for the holidays”.

The action takes place in 1959 in a ramshackle Philadelphia bar (designed by Sydney Lynne), where Thomas as Holiday captivates an audience of “friends”. Through poignant songs and stories, she relays her tumultuous and tragic life: a life persecuted by the government, the betrayal of lovers (especially her first husband, Sonny), the cheating of her income (she died at 44 with only 70 cents in his bank account), racial discrimination and alcoholism and drug addiction.

Thomas makes it a spellbinding and captivating experience, from her less-than-gorgeous entrance resplendent in a white satin cocktail dress and glittering rhinestones to her frozen-in-the-song ending (Jos N. Banks costumes). She also delivers consistent salty, wry humor, providing comic relief as we uncover some of the horrors of her past. “Parole officers are always white. They come late to my concerts and always wear white socks – they’re afraid of colored people and colored socks… When I die, I don’t care if it’s heaven or hell, as long as it’s not ain’t Philly.

Thomas is set on vacation; she’s sharp, she’s warm, she’s just an enchanting, bright, captivating and vibrant actress who also happens to be a gorgeous singer. Thomas tells Holiday’s stories as she becomes incredibly drunk and incoherent; the most incredibly touching moments occur with his stunning rendition of “God Bless the Child” (written for his mother) and “Strange Fruit”, a determined and impassioned song that graphically illuminates the horrific brutalization of black Americans. You can’t ignore “Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze, there are strange fruits hanging from the poplars.”

Thomas is impeccable as she sings, belts and serenades 15 songs in total, from the most popular to the lesser known in Holiday’s catalog. Playwright Robertson exemplifies how Holiday found solace in songs, but “the music is like an injection of heroin”. And Holiday gives full credit to the musical influences of “Pops” Louie Armstrong and Bessie Smith, as she colorfully recounts how she came to love them while working as a cleaner in Baltimore.

But let’s not forget the other central character of “Lady Day”. From the moment we hear Jimmy Powers, the character of Reggie Thomas, you know you’re going to love him. With a calm, soothing voice, he persuades Billie to sing for the bar crowd. When Reggie Thomas sits at the piano, it’s magic. He is as alive with his tapping, flying fingers as the music he plays on stage. He makes Jimmy kindly patient and as powerfully majestic as what he offers us musically.

Metropolis’ “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is an honest history lesson, a haunting musical tribute, and a powerfully engaging production featuring two hugely talented performers. Highly recommended.

[The show runs about 80 minutes with no intermission, and contains graphic and explicit language. Proof of vaccination and masks are required.]

• Passionate about theater on stage and behind the scenes, member of the theater committee and theater critic, Regina Belt-Daniels is delighted to once again experience live productions with the public.


WHAT: “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”

OR: Metropolis Performing Arts Center, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights

WHEN: Until March 12

COST: $40

INFORMATION: 847-577-2121, MetropolisArts.com

About Laurence Johnson

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