Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Set designer Paul Kuhn has styled the Curio Theater Company's space into an old-school jazz club complete with small high-top tables for the audience, an inviting little bar, and a stage just big enough to hold a baby grand, one stool, and a microphone. The thoughtful lighting design by Steve Carpenter and Paul Kuhn contributes to the sense of authenticity on stage and in the house. Damien Figueras's sound design delivers without overwhelming the small space.
Ebony Pullum has Holiday's sultry, crass energy and easy confidence from the moment she walks on stage. When the singing starts, Pullum's ability to channel Holiday's unique sound is positively uncanny. Pullum gets Billie's manner of speech right too, but that accuracy can make some of her dialogue challenging to understand.
The night starts with fantastic renditions of standards like "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Crazy He Calls Me," with Pullman accompanied on piano by the talented Shawn Bobien performing as Jimmy Powers. The banter between numbers starts off standard too, but soon Pullum is weaving personal stories into a revealing portrait of Billie Holiday's profoundly troubled life.
The stories and the mood become darker as Holiday slowly descends into substance-induced oblivion. By the time she finishes talking about her mother, The Dutchess, and sings "God Bless the Child," she is vulnerable in a way that makes the song impossibly heartbreaking. Toward the end of the evening, Pullum sings a chilling rendition of "Strange Fruit." The powerful song is both glorious and painful in its raw emotion. Pullum handles this transition deftly, and although her Holiday is clearly becoming increasingly inebriated and out of control, Pullum's performance is never over the top.
Pullum's vocals are spectacular and her transformation is brilliantly executed, but her bravery is just as impressive. It takes strength to put on such an intense performance and courage to stare down the specter of that long night's journey over and over and over again. Thanks to Pullum's emotional effort, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is as beautiful and terrible as Billie Holiday's own incredible story.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs through April 9, 2022, at Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit curiotheatre.org or call 215-921-8243.