Imagine you're sitting among a sea of mink stoles, suits, and fedoras in a small South Philadelphia bar. It's a cool night, in late March 1959. Ashtrays and drinks occupy the tables as some of the décor in the intimate space trends toward a last gasp of art deco, with red accents and a beige lotus-leaved backdrop for the musicians. The band is so close, and when the singer emerges, you realize you are watching a star.
Maybe a fallen star, but a star nonetheless.
You can’t look away from Billie Holiday, or, as she tells us, “Lady Day”—the sequined white dress, the white gloves, the gardenia at her wrist. And then, the music begins, and you have never heard a voice like this before, and deep down, you know you won’t hear it again. That is what it is like to watch Stages’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. You are there, and you are all in. Because she is unforgettable.
Written by Lanie Robertson and expertly directed by director and actress Rachel Hemphill Dickson, this script is like a poem, and no line or movement is wasted. Each moment counts and leaves an impression that moves the audience, especially when backed by an excellent band, with Ronnie Mason, Jr. playing Holiday’s pianist as well as her ostensible fiancé, Jimmy Powers.
But the showstopper is HSPVA graduate and Broadway veteran DeQuina Moore, who gives us a stunning performance as the brilliant, brassy, and vulnerable singer. As Holiday’s life unfolds in a conversation with the audience, Moore performs an impressive range of her oeuvre, from upbeat and jazzy swing standards to the haunting and unforgettable “Strange Fruit.” Each facial expression, each revelation (“Philly’s been a rat’s ass for me!”), each movement—all are spot on.
We are also reminded of Holiday’s penchant for music in which she adopts the persona of a woman who does foolish things for men yet is acutely aware of it. Those songs are performed with an authenticity that springs from her own life, which was filled with failed marriages, financial betrayal, and alcoholism. The delayed revelation of Holiday's heroin addiction hangs in the air like a storm cloud. You can’t help it—watching this singer shine and unravel and rally again is so intense; you want to find someone to blame for the unraveling. That is the drama of this show—the wonderful songs, and the need to figure out why everything went so wrong for such a stunning talent.
Some plays are entertaining; some offer profound epiphanies. This show does both. With a wonderful and believable set (James V. Thomas and Jodi Bobrovsky), stellar talent, and a script that has both pathos and humor, we are reminded that Holiday was a true American original. Yet the originality that fueled her music with the emotional depth was hard-won through bewildering setbacks.
Stages has given us an amazing gift—this is the closest we will get to seeing Holiday, who tragically died at age 44 in 1959, in person. There’s also an added present in the wonderful knowledge that we may be able to see the superlative Moore in future productions, no matter who she is embodying.