By JOAN TADDIE
You can feel it when you step through the door of the intimate Upstairs@The Henegar. Josh Huss’s superb lighting design envelopes you as you enter and draws you into another place in time, the historic Emerson’s Tavern in 1959 South Philadelphia, created by set designer Brighid Reppert. Patrons scurry to find seats next to small, round cabaret tables and order drinks from the bar.People talk in hushed voices anticipating the start of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” this one woman play with music, written by Lanie Robertson that won the 1987 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Book, originally starring Reenie Upchurch as Billie Holiday. In 2014, the play opened on Broadway at Circle in the Square with Audra McDonald winning a Tony for Best Actress in a Play.
The setting is a seedy, intimate bar four months before Billie Holiday dies at age 44 from a hard life and complications of years of narcotics addiction. Her voice has grown smaller and rougher, but she still sings with the emotional intensity and unique phrasing that led her to the top of her profession. With the smart and sensitive direction of Pam Harbaugh, Billie shares stories of her life throughout her performance which focuses on her family, her singing, and her constant battle with the challenges of racism.
At the top of the show, the musicians take their places and warm up the audience with some mean jazz, featuring Ethan Bailey-Gould on bass, Ashton Bailey-Gould on drums and the sensational Jarred Armstrong on piano. Kristen Warren enters and gives an impassioned and extraordinary performance as “Lady Day.”Dressed in a stunning, white gown designed by costumer Vanessa Glenn, Ms. Warren captivates the audience with her Billie Holiday-styled vocals backed up by the outstanding jazz trio. Mr. Armstrong, on piano, connects superbly with Ms. Warren on every number, and, music directed with sensitive interpretation by Jordan Evans, there are many classic Billie Holiday songs, including the soulful, “God Bless the Child” and the haunting “Strange Fruit.”
Although the vocals are wonderful, the audience cannot help but be mesmerized by the stories Billie tells. Ms. Warren pulls us into Billie’s life and shares her dreams, her fears, her loves, and her despair with a smile or a laugh and with eyes searching for answers or overflowing with tears.
As I was leaving the theatre, I heard a patron comment, “They captured it! They totally nailed the essence!” I agree.
The show runs through Feb. 19 but is sold out. Keep an eye out, though, in case of additional performances, at Henegar.org Disclaimer: Ms. Harbaugh asked Ms. Taddie to write this review.