After a safe season last year featuring familiar shows such as Hello, Dolly! and You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) this year presents lesser known and more challenging pieces for Hot Summer Nights, their annual summer theater program. With such selections comes risk but also the opportunity for great rewards, and their production of Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill delivers just that to Cincinnati audiences.
Lady Day is part performance piece, part historical and social overview. Set at midnight at a Philadelphia nightclub in 1959, the musical presents jazz/blues great Billie Holiday in a performance at the end of her career (and life). This one-woman show (except for some interaction with her trio of instrumentalists) showcases many of Holiday's famous songs such as "Foolin' Myself", "Crazy He Calls Me", and "God Bless The Child." Even more importantly, the show chronicles the sometimes celebrated, more often rocky path of the singer's journey in life. Billie Holiday's rise from poverty and prostitution to stardom, rebellion against prejudice and segregation, and deterioration (including imprisonment) due to drugs and alcohol are all dramatized through dialogue provided by the legend to her 1959 audience. With coarse language, tales of a destructive love affair, some well-placed humor, and the sharing of unrealized dreams, the show provides a dramatic and deep perspective of this remarkable woman.
Taking on the momentous role of Billie Holiday is recent CCM graduate Jasmin Walker. With just the right balance of vulnerability and no-holds-barred attitude, Walker is fully believable as the sassy and soulful performer. She is in full command of the stage and consistent in her effective portrayal. Walker also accurately replicates the singing voice and style of Holiday without sounding like merely an imitation.
Richard E. Hess appropriately creates a tension-filled tone for the piece with his acute direction. The emotional impact of the show as written by Lanie Robertson is sustained throughout. Musical Director Greg Anthony (piano), along with Tim Sylvester (guitar) and Tony Neumayr (bass) contribute solid accompaniment, as well as fodder for Holiday's humor and scorn.
Mark Halpin's set design attractively creates a late 1950s nightclub (though one likely to be more posh than Holiday would have played at this point) and is wonderfully complemented by James H. Gage's atmospheric lighting concept. Walker's costume by Rebecca Senske is an elegant period gown befitting of Ms. Holiday's style.
CCM takes a gamble with Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill, but the show is entertaining and enlightening to those willing to try something different. The musical continues in repertory with Violet and We Tell The Story through August 18, 2002. For tickets, call (513) 556-4183.