by Gail M. Burns, December 2007
Without Gail Nelson and Billie Holiday there would be no Barrington Stage. In the summer of 1995 Julianne Boyd, following her stint as the artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, announced she was starting her own company and her first production would be Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill starring Gail Nelson, directed by Rob Ruggerio, and performed at the Macano Inn in Housatonic. Since then the company has mounted the show five times, always with Nelson, and, until now, always in a space as intimate space as the run-down Philadelphia bar in which Holiday is supposed to be performing in the show.
Now you don’t keep trotting out a production and a performer like that unless it is a crowd-pleaser and a money-maker, and since Lady Day... has proven itself to be both, why not present it as a holiday treat on the new Main Stage, which seats 550, and sell even more tickets and make even more money?
Why not indeed? This little biography/cabaret by Lanie Robertson is big enough to fill the BSC Main Stage, thanks to Nelson’s performance which, while not a literal imitation of Holiday, infuses the show with the star quality necessary to fill Madison Square Garden.
The premise of the show is that an ailing Holiday (Nelson) in the last year of her life is performing at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a seedy joint run by a friend in Philadelphia, a city she loathes. She has neither the physical stamina nor the “cabaret card” necessary to legally perform, but perform she must. In between numbers Holiday banters with the audience, telling wonderful anecdotes from her life, from the story of how she stood up to a racist Maitress De while touring the south with Artie Shaw and his band to tales of her feisty mother, Sadie Fagan, aka “The Duchess.” Some of the stories are horrific, that within the last century Americans could have treated their fellow citizens so badly, some are humorous, and some are loving.
But while we learn a lot about Holiday’s life from Robertson’s script, we learn at least as much again from the songs she sang. Nelson is accompanied by her real-life husband, pianist Danny Holgate, as Jimmy Powers, and David Jackon on bass. Holgate, who did the excellent musical arrangements, and Jackson get their own richly deserved solo set right after intermission.
As Robertson tells the story Billie needs Jimmy. From her first lines, spoken off-stage, it is clear that she cannot and will not walk out on that stage without Jimmy, to whom she claims to be engaged. Holgate plays the role with realism and kindness. Holiday could have done worse than to settle down with him, had she lived long enough to do so.
Holiday tells us over and over that singing was her calling and that music is the one thing that made life worth living for her. There is no doubt that she was born to sing and that it was really the one and only thing at which she was successful. Holiday had a hard and sadly short life, dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959 at 44, marred by an unhappy childhood, rape, prostitution, failed marriages, chronic drug and alcohol abuse, and two stints in jail. But she is considered the greatest female jazz vocalist to date, and her recordings still sell well nearly half a century after her death.
In order to make the stage appear smaller and more intimate a smaller faux brick proscenium has been constructed inside the theatre’s actual arch. I did not see the recent production of Fully Committed but I believe this set piece is a holdover from that show. Since the faux brick work is an excellent match for the theatre’s actual brick back wall, which is exposed here, BSC would do well to keep the smaller arch for shows that need a more intimate feel.
Otherwise there really isn’t a set, just the piano, the bass and a small table with two chairs stage left. Nelson sips on a glass of “bourbon” throughout, which is obviously her water supply to allow her to make it through seventeen songs and the intervening monologues.
Having not seen the show before I don’t know whether it has been presented without an intermission – certainly the three performers need a break – but it has one here that divides our time with the sober Lady Day and our time with the woman who is so doped up that she nods off mid-song. Heroin was Holiday’s drug of choice.
To soften the second act shift to the sad and staggering Holiday, Nelson makes her entrance with a terrified little dog named Pepi, played with abject terror by Quincy, a French Bull-Boston Terrier mix making his acting debut here in the Berkshires. While Quincy behaved very, very well during the performance I attended, every inch of his body spoke of his misery and alarm at being made to stand under bright lights while people sang and banged on instruments and beyond the lights, out in a great dark void, there were a million new smells that he could neither identify (friend or foe?) nor investigate. Poor Quincy! But he did his bit and was certainly entertaining to the audience with whom I attended the show.
If you are a fan of Holiday’s music, you will hear it performed very, very well here. If you are intrigued by her life, you will learn a lot about it. If you just like to be entertained, this show is an excellent choice for a cold winter’s evening, which seems to be what’s in store weather-wise for the rest of the show’s brief run.
Lady Day... is running virtually unopposed this week, its only theatrical competition in Berkshire County being Rabbit Hole up in North Adams and a staged reading at Shakespeare & Company. For area residents starved for top-notch theatre, this is just the ticket.
The Barrington Stage Company production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs through December 9 at their Main Stage theatre, 30 Union Street in Pittsfield. The show runs an hour and forty five minutes with one intermission. Adult language makes it unsuitable for children under 14. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007