By Dale King
The youngster who grew up to become music icon Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915. The daughter of an unwed teenage couple spent her youth living with her mother in a brothel, subjected to sexual abuse, squalid surroundings, rape and specters of rape.
Woes — drug and alcohol abuse among them — refused to let go of her when she stepped out of the shadows to carve out a career as the legendary nightclub performer whose vocal style brought verve, life and character to the entertainment era of the early 20th century.
Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner, saxophonist Lester Young, Holiday’s influential life that ended much too soon at age 44 in 1959 has been recalled in books and films. But perhaps the most stylish and appropriate retelling is found in the musical play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, now being performed with grit and beauty at the Lake Worth Playhouse.
Lady Day is a mix of music and monologue, with the singer (portrayed elegantly by Bronx-born Pauline Hutchinson) regaling the audience, between songs with stories about her life. The truisms are often peppered with frank, racial slang and laced with salty, humorous reminiscences to create a riveting, living portrait of the lady and her songs.
The show, playing through May 16, is a must-see for jazz aficionados and musical history buffs. The performance, set in a seedy bar in Philadelphia in 1959, is just the kind of place Lady Day would encounter at this time in her life — weary from a harsh, excessive life, just four months shy of her death in a New York hospital.
Joining the Lady on stage in this two-person production is Elijah Taj Gee, a pianist who doesn’t just tickle the ivories, he makes them laugh with joy. Portraying Lady Day’s accompanist, Jimmy Powers, he watches her like a hawk, knowing her body has been ravaged by a life of substance abuse despite her efforts to cut loose.
The Lake Worth Playhouse production is touching, beautiful and sad, all at the same time. Those in the gallery are moved by Jimmy’s careful, but inconspicuous, attention to Lady Day’s appearance, demeanor and behavior, all the time trying to stay out of her limelight.
Written by Lanie Robertson and first produced on Broadway in 1986, Lady Day gives Hutchinson the go to rebrand many tunes that Holiday called her own, including, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Easy Livin’,” “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do” and the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit.”
The vocalist doesn’t try to copy the legendary Lady Day’s style, but gives her all to capture the mood, fun and intensity of a woman who certainly had the right to sing the blues.
Noting that she is performing in South Philly, the singer says: “I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell; just don’t send me to South Philly.”
There’s hilarity in some of her reflections, but melancholy isn’t far away. Billie tells of shows where she was on the playbill but wasn’t allowed to eat in the dining room because she was Black.
“When I was playing with Artie Shaw’s band, I had to eat in the kitchen because he had a Black bitch [with him] by the name of Billie Holiday.”
Sipping a glass that the actual Billie would have filled with liquor, the performer on stage talks about her mom: “I called her the duchess — because, after all, I’m a lady.”
Drugs? “I don’t know about heroin and all that.”
Contemporary performers? “That Bessie Smith, she’s something else,” said Billie, launching into one of Bessie’s bar-hop favorites, “Gimme a Pigfoot – and a Bottle of Beer” with her best comical charm.
As the night goes on, so does the drinking, and Jimmy has to step in to keep Billie on track. The show does stay on point, and Billie completes her song list, from “Crazy He Calls Me” to “When a Woman Loves a Man” and “Baby Doll,” all signature tunes.
Helming the LWP production is director Karen Stephens, an actor in her own right, with credentials that include a memorable performance with Avery Sommers as the Delaney sisters in Having Our Say with the Primal Forces troupe in Boca Raton and in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s production, Doubt.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill runs through May 16 at the Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth Beach. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 561-586-6410 or visiting www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.