Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
It is almost impossible to do a biographic play about an iconic performer because what made them so special is just about impossible to replicate. Billie Holiday proves this theory, and Lanie Robertson doesn't give a strong footprint to attempt it. The conceit is a very late career performance by the chanteuse, her physical and mental condition badly deteriorated. Dramatic sequences alternate with songs, which in and of itself is a trap. The non-musical sections are not incisively written and do not dig into the specificity of what Billie Holiday went through, so even a performer who is more actress than singer is going to have a hard time inhabiting the character. Audiences will likely want the musical selections to be excitingly sung, contrary to what the real woman was capable at this time in her life, so we are left with a kind of no win situation.
Melba Moore is a star. Watching her as Billie Holiday leaves no doubt that her awards and nominations are richly deserved. I saw her Tony winning turn as Luttiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in one of my favorite musicals, Purlie, and I have only to play the cast recording to be reminded what star power feels like. The stronger part of her performance here is the singing. The real Billie Holiday sang many great songs, and Ms. Moore brings her own magic to "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Strange Fruit," and "Don't Explain," among others. The final "Deep Song" is a magical theatrical moment as the backdrop goes to red. These are Melba Moore's renditions of songs Billie Holiday sang, not to be confused with trying to channel the original star. If a cast album were available, I would buy it. Ms. Moore does very well by the dramatic side of things as well. Since she has not performed often as an actress, I am a little surprised, but great talent often explodes in more than one direction.
Levi Barcourt accompanies Billie Holiday as Jimmy Powers. He is excellent, both musically and dramatically. He is assisted by Kenny Walker on bass guitar and James Varnado on drums.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is an imperfect vehicle but a useful one for hanging a virtuoso performance on. That is what Melba Moore, courtesy of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, brings us. I would write here that Sarasota audiences would be foolish to miss the opportunity to see such a great star turn, but the entire run is already completely sold out. If you can't bear the thought of missing it, contact the box office for information on waiting lists.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, through April 8, 2018, at by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.