Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Lady Day, set in a none-too-elegant bar in South Philadelphia in March 1959, doesn't need much scenically: A few café tables at stage right and left offer seating for eight to ten audience members. An upright piano and a small platform with shell-shaped footlights and an upright microphone give singer-actress Brandi La'Sherrill and musician Dev Marvelous the necessary space to perform 16 numbers from Holiday's storied repertoire. Staged by Darnell Pierre Benjamin, the production offers a sad portrait of a talent cut short by a hard life.
Holiday is at the low point in her career in this musical play by Lanie Robertson, likely Holiday's final performance just a few months before her death at age 44. After a year-long stint in prison for drug possession, her New York cabaret card was revoked, requiring her to seek venues elsewhere. "I used to tell everybody: When I die, I don't care if I go to heaven or hell, long's it ain't in Philly," the city where she was tried and convicted. But she finds herself there as her performance opportunities become increasingly limited.
La'Sherrill, a fine singer and a resident artist with The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati, truly looks the part. Dressed in long gloves and an elegant white, off-the-shoulder gown spangled with glittering rhinestones, La'Sherrill comes onstage looking beautiful, but Holiday is none too steady. She sips a drink throughout her performance and stumbles off at one point, perhaps in search of a heroin hit to calm her nerves. Between the musical numbers, Holiday tells stories about her difficult life and career–abusive relationships with men, struggles with her teenage unpredictable mother, and especially virulent racism in pre-civil rights America when she toured the Southern states with white bandleader Artie Shaw.
With accomplished jazz and blues piano-playing by Marvelous in the role of Jimmy Powers, who does his best to keep Holiday on track, La'Sherrill's rendition of songs are moving demonstrations of the singer's talent and the desire that held her together through years of difficulty. Her portrait of Holiday is that of a woman who's increasingly exhausted and occasionally unwilling to finish numbers, even though she says, "I just want to sing." During several of Holiday's best-known, iconic numbers–"God Bless the Child" (a number she wrote with Arthur Herzog in 1939 and recorded in 1941, describing how everyone is your friend when you have money, but "empty pockets don't make the grade"), and "Strange Fruit," a desolate metaphor for lynching–the truth behind the sad reality of her life is powerfully evident.
The show has several upbeat moments with numbers including the romantic "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and the jaunty "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)." The latter song has La'Sherrill encouraging a bit of audience sing-along, and we see glimmers of Holiday's humor and her desire to connect. Nevertheless, Lady Day can be a tough tale to watch. Observing Holiday's sad decline makes the show's downbeat story and finale a somewhat odd choice for a summer of musicals. Nevertheless, it's a showcase for a pair of talented performers and certainly a powerful reminder of a career and a life that should have been more appreciated and extended.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill runs through August 20, 2023, at The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington KY. For tickets and information, please visit thecarnegie.com or call 859-957-1940.