Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

An Evening With Billie Holiday and Suzanne Douglas

Also see Bob's reviews of Re-Entry and Augusta

Suzanne Douglas
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is set in a seedy neighborhood bar in south Philadelphia in 1959. Here we ostensibly are viewing one of the final performances of jazz great Billie Holiday, just four months before her death at the age of 44. However, as directed by Ted Sod in the current incarnation at Morristown's Bickford Theatre, it seems clear that what we are actually viewing is a reverie occurring in the tragically alcohol-sodden mind of the legendary singer. Holiday clearly appears to be hallucinating that she is performing, as she rummages through principal events in her life. Although details have been streamlined and fictionalized by author Lanie Robertson in order to strengthen dramatic structure, Lady Day (a sobriquet widely applied to Holiday) provides us with the essentials of her short, tragic life.

Lanie Robertson's structure is unwieldy. By staging Lady Day as if it is playing within Billie Holiday's head, director Ted Sod has some success in ameliorating the awkward script which finds Robertson placing far too much information into Holiday's mouth. Still, the pedantic and artificial nature of Robertson's dialogue is distancing.

Despite this, Billie Holiday's life story is compelling and moving. Although the suffering which was so much a part of her life was often self-inflicted and rose from many sources, there can be no doubt that our nation's historic racism was the underlying, if not the principle cause, from which all else followed.

Lady Day was originally produced both in Atlanta and then Off-Broadway in 1986. It was produced by the George Street Play house in 2001 with Suzanne Douglas portraying Holiday. To the good fortune of New Jersey theatergoers, Douglas has returned to the role for the current production. She realistically portrays Billie Holiday's disintegration with subtle dramatic force as Holiday collapses under the weight of her revealed history.

A formally trained singer, Douglas sings selections from the Billie Holiday oeuvre in a smooth and secure, wide-ranging voice. Among the sixteen or so songs which Douglas sings in whole or in part are the pensive "G-d Bless the Child" (her signature song) and the very dark "Strange Fruit." However, Douglas also brings her expert singing to the lighthearted jazz of "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Jeepers Creepers" and "Ain't Nobody's Business"; and the romantic lushness of "Easy to Love" and "Crazy in Love". Douglas' vocal technique is the antithesis of Holiday's small, badly frayed, narrow ranged voice of her final years. Director Sod's concept, which has Lady Day imagining herself singing unimpaired within her own head, enhances Douglas' performance by rendering moot any question which might be raised about her not singing in Holiday style.

Alva Nelson plays Holiday's piano player (here known as Jimmy Powers). Nelson deftly performs this speaking role and is superb on the keys. Ditto David Robinson on Saxophone and Thaddeus Expose on bass.

With Suzanne Douglas on board, Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill is well worth seeing

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill continues performances (Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. / Sun. 2 p.m.) through February 15, 2009 at the Bickford Theatre (in the Morris Museum), 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960. Box Office: 973-971-3706; online:

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar and Grill, a play with music by Lanie Robertson; directed by Ted Sod

Billie Holiday……………Suzanne Douglas
Jimmy (piano player)…………Alva Nelson

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- Bob Rendell

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