Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
By Lanie Robertson
Directed by Paul Castaneda
Musical direction and accompaniment by Stephen A. Merritt
Starring Desiree Perez
Theatre Downtown, Orlando FL

It’s always painful to watch the mighty fall, and when they push themselves off their pedestal its doubly painful. Billy (Eleanora Fagan) Holiday was one of those singers who made a name but not a fortune for herself, and was successfully exploited by nearly everyone who touched her life. Born in 1915 in Philadelphia, her childhood was one of abandonment and abuse. But she could sing and was around when Jazz was the hot, hot sound, and her mother got her a job in a brothel as a cleaning lady and part time call girl. She couldn’t dance but could sing, and soon was drawing crowds at the swinging clubs in prohibition era Harlem. Like many other great musicians she had poor taste in men and came out of WW2 with a crummy boyfriend and a worse habit. That led her to some time in a West Virginia prison during the height of Jim Crow. As she points out: “getting arrested is long time Negro tradition.” But despite these burdens she went on to sell millions of records with the profits flowing to everyone but her.

Ms. Perez does more than channel Holiday’s voice and style, she comes on stage obviously drunk and becomes drunker as the night progresses, and that’s one of the hardest things to do successfully when fully sober. Her voice may not be exactly that of Ms. Holiday but there are no complaints as to her soul and authenticity. Her stories are humiliating and touching, injustice was her daily bread and only the brave (I’m talking Artie Shaw here) showed her any real trust or respect. Behind her we have the shadowy Voice of Reason (Stephen Merritt) as her friend, manger and piano player. There are 14 songs here, not all technically complete, but all emotionally resonant. Her biggest hit “God Bless the Child” stakes the center of the show, and the brutal “Strange Fruit” pounds that stake home. Other remarkable numbers include “Hush Now” and the Bessie Smith / Louie Armstrong drinking song “Pigs Foot.” Ms. Perez is a powerful talent on her own, but with Ms. Holiday’s words behind her she’s unstoppable.

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