Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Also see Susan's review of Anything Goes
Lanie Robertson's script presents Holiday nearing the end of her rope, singing in a small South Philadelphia jazz club as she tries to make sense of her life. (She was 44 when she died, after years of heroin addiction and alcohol abuse.) Although she puts on a brave front when she comes out, talking about herself as the "new Billie" making a fresh start, Sterling makes Holiday's fear and uncertainty evident through movement. she walks unsteadily to and around the stage, watching carefully as she takes each cautious step. As the performance wears on, Holiday exposes deeper and deeper psychic wounds, coping in the only ways she knows.
"You can only get to what you are by going through what you've been," Holiday says as she reminisces about her life and career. As far as she's concerned, the audience members are all her dearest friends, so she tells them stories of her mother, "the Duchess," who was only 13 when Holiday was born; of her young days running errands in a whorehouse, where she first heard recordings by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong; her years on the road with the orchestras of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, including a raucous story of getting revenge on a snooty restaurant hostess in segregated Alabama; and the men she loved one of whom introduced her to drugs.
For dramatic purposes, the performer playing Holiday must have a stronger voice than the real Lady Day would have had by this point in her life. Sterling's clear voice cuts to the bone; she occasionally adds a hint of Holiday's stylistic mannerisms, the little off edge she sometimes gave to notes, but she never overplays the gimmick. The numbers selected by Robertson run the gamut from Holiday's signature songs, "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit," to Bessie Smith's thumping "Gimme a Pig Foot," and aching love ballads like "When a Woman Loves a Man" and "Crazy He Calls Me."
While Sterling is, and must be, the focus of the performance, she receives admirable support from musical director William Foster McDaniel as pianist Jimmy Powers, as well as drummer Eric Kennedy and bassist Thomas E. Short Jr. Director Kenneth Lee Roberson has molded them into a smoothly running unit, allowing the musicians their individual moments while they also provide optimal backing to the singer.
In keeping with the jazz-club ambiance, Arena Stage has set up cabaret tables in the front of the Kreeger Theater and is allowing customers to take drinks to their seats.