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Review: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’ at Rep Stage

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It took way too long for Baltimore gal Billie Holiday to make the 20-odd mile trip out to Howard County for a live performance. It was a hard trip, too, judging from the bruised and fragile state we find her in now at Rep Stage, courtesy of Lanie Robertson’s fine 1986 play-with-music, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

Celeste Jones in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at Rep Stage. Photo by Katie Simmons-Barth.

Stepping up on the velvety nightclub set representing that Philadelphia watering hole, circa 1959, the jazz singer seems to know she is a living legend among musicians. But tonight, Lady Day is also damaged and distracted, returning to her wine bottle again and again as she tries to find her way through a valley of whispering ghosts.

She will tell us a lot about those ghosts in the course of the night, which keeps her pianist, Jimmy Powers, busy trying to cover for her and get her back on track. Along the way the two of them, backed by a jazz bassist and drummer, present enough damned fine music to make us wish she could go on forever.

Forever, alas, would only consist of another couple of months for Lady Day. Her official cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver, but there were enough other causes to suggest a conspiracy.

Celeste Jones is making her Rep Stage debut as Billie. Those who see her here may never accept her in any other role. As an actress she is so painfully credible that it will make you squirm at times, whether she’s haranguing Jim Crow laws, indicting a racist hierarchy of officers of the law, or lashing out at the men who abused her and led her to hard drugs.

Jones is more wistful combing through the upbringing in Baltimore that left her so vulnerable to all the caustic rains that accompany success.

It’s when Jones launches into a favored groove, however, that we truly understand why the world fell in love with her talent. “Crazy, He Calls Me,” “God Bless the Child,” “Easy Livin’” and the Bessie Smith swing-time bop “Give Me a Pig Foot” are all here, and many others.

Wil Lewis III (at piano) in the Nightclub setting of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at Rep Stage. Photo by Katie Simmons-Barth.

Most of them will make you want to tap and bob along with pure pleasure. Others will shake your faith in people. Yes, “Strange Fruit” is here, as well.

What Holiday did with her thin, contralto voice was a sharp rebuke to so-called experts over what exactly constitutes a musical limitation. Holiday had no formal musical education but she had the instincts of a storyteller. Like her beloved Bessie Smith, passions erupted from deep within her shifting plates of cynicism and sentimentality.

Standing before the vintage 1959 microphone in her beaded evening gown and elbow-high white gloves, Celeste Jones does not so much imitate the singer as emulate that musical phenomenon. I suspect her personal singing style is naturally more robust, perhaps more suited to gospel and blues. But she resists the urge to change Holiday’s unique phrasing and intonations — and bravo to her and to Director Daniella A. Drakes for it.

Wil Lewis III also gets a wonderful showcase here for his acting and musical talents as exasperated accompanist, Jimmy Powers.

Jay Herzog’s dynamic lighting and Mark Smedley’s sound design further make us feel privileged to have a stage-side table for this memorable performance.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill raises many sociological issues dealing with race and gender, yes. But more importantly it redefines the spirit and the beautiful musical genius of Lady Day for today’s discerning listener.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill plays at Rep Stage through November 19, 2017 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.

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