Review: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’ at Spotlighters Theatre

Picture yourself sitting in a dive bar in south Philadelphia in March of 1959. You’re spending an evening listening to Billie Holiday’s soulful voice as she sings her music and regales us with stories of her life. It isn’t hard to do if you are occupying a seat at Audrey Herman’s Spotlighters Theatre for a mesmerizing evening of the one woman show Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

LeVar Betts (Jimmy Powers) and Anya Randall Nebe (Billie Holiday). Photo by Spotlighters Theatre/Chris Aldridge, CM Aldridge Photography.
LeVar Betts (Jimmy Powers) and Anya Randall Nebel (Billie Holiday). Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridge Photography.

This beautifully written work by Lanie Robertson is based on Billie Holiday’s last performance before her death four months later of cirrhosis and heart failure. The show is filled with her wonderfully seductive music and stories of her life experiences. The two are interlaced seamlessly into a very memorable evening of theatre. The stories are humorous and edgy which gives us a look back into this musical icon’s life.

The play originally opened on Broadway at Circle on the Square in April of 2014 and starred Audra McDonald. It garnered Ms. McDonald her record-breaking sixth Tony Award. And here at Spotlighters the incomparable Anya Randall Nebel gives an equally astonishing performance.

Resident Set Designer Alan S. Zemal did an outstanding job recreating Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The walls are laden with brick accents. In one corner there is a bar, in another a musical trio, in another a small round table surrounded by framed pictures of artists who we assume appeared at one time or another at this venue. On stage, there is a simple 50’s microphone and a table cattycorner to the mic. The table has a bottle of whiskey, a glass, a mirror and lipstick and Billie Holiday’s signature white gardenia in a small vase. The set is simple, and effectively takes us back to that time and place.

Lighting Designer Chris Holland compliments Mr. Zemla’s design with lighting that completely sets the mood as Lady Day takes us through the ups and downs of her life.

Tom Flatt, who is both the Dramaturge and Acting/Dialect Coach, did a superb job with Ms. Nebel’s vocal and speech patterns. It was incredible just how much she sounded like Ms. Holiday. It must have taken hours of work and study to achieve such extraordinary results.

It was easy to tell that the Director Jared Shamberger knew his subject matter well, because his direction was clean and concise. He did a wonderful job recreating the evening in question. He utilized all areas of the stage as well as some of the corner areas – one being where the trio performed – where she spent several moments in the show referring to musician friend Jimmy Powers at the piano.

The musical trio is headed up by LeVar Betts who is both the Musical Director of the show and plays Jimmy Powers Ms. Holiday’s piano player. Samuel Glover is on drums and Mike Pugh is on upright bass. The trio was a perfect touch with their smooth jazz tones. We knew we were in for a treat when they jammed before the show started. They were a perfect complement to Ms. Nebel’s voice.

Last, but most certainly not least, is Anya Randall Nebel who plays Billie Holiday She IS Billie Holiday. Her performance is nothing less than brilliant. She is so believable – from her slightly tipsy entrance onto the stage, to when she is so drunk that she loses touch with where she is and why she’s there. She takes her audience on a excursion that makes them feel like they were really there at that very time and place.

From her vocal rendition of “Pig Foot” by her personal hero Bessie Smith, to the haunting “God Bless the Child,” which she wrote for her mother, Ms. Nebel takes us with her on this icon’s musical journey. She almost broke my heart at the end of the show when she sang “Deep Song.” Ms. Nebel certainly deserved her spontaneous standing ovation at the end of the performance.

Anya Randall Nebe (Billie Holiday). Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridge Photography.
Anya Randall Nebel (Billie Holiday). Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridge Photography.

If you’re looking for an exceptional evening of theatre that will carry you off to another time and place, come see this lady sing the blues in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Anya Randall Nebel delivers one of the best performances you will see on the stage – anytime and anywhere. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill plays through April 3, 2016 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre – 817 Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif


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