The move from a brightly lit foyer into the dark and narrow Venus Cabaret causes a momentary adjustment of the eyes upon arrival at “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” A vision emerges, the real jazz club experience—splashes of turquoise and magenta illuminate hanging photographs of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith. A small bar run by “Emerson” himself serves “Billie’s Usual,” a “Stinger,” brandy and crème de menthe that tastes like a Colgate cocktail. (Maybe menthol is good for the voice?)
A hush of anticipation washes over the crowd as the lights dim and the band enters. A thin proscenium forms a glowing frame as “Billie Holiday” takes the stage.
Alexis J. Roston, who plays Lady Day, does the best rendition of Holiday’s later-era stylized singing that I’ve ever heard. The show progresses quickly through the familiar catalogue, and each note Roston sings drips with Holiday’s signature slurring and bending of the melody. Her voice bounces and swings with the saltatorial “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” and becomes razor-thin with amorous elation during the lovey-dovey “Easy Living.” If “Lady Day” was just a concert, you would get your money’s worth.
But it’s more than that.
The narrative, written by Lanie Robertson, takes a dark turn and mirrors events from Holiday’s life—drug addiction, time in jail, a destructive marriage. As the show progresses, Holiday becomes more and more intoxicated. It becomes clear that the “Moonlight” of which she earlier sang lovingly about has become a synonym for heroin, which she partakes of—tourniquet, needle and all—in her dressing room between sets.
Holiday is foul-mouthed and unrepentant. It is all the piano player, Jimmy (Nygel D. Robinson), can do to just keep her upright. Holiday, ever the consummate professional, endures the self-inflicted abuse, brushing it off and reminding us that it “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
Unlike her portrayal by the press in the 1950s, Robertson gives the context behind what lead her to this moment. Accompanying the slow and sweet hit “God Bless The Child” is a somber telling of her early life as the overweight daughter of a young single mother. She takes a slug from her glass as she recounts anecdotes of sexual abuse and her time in a brothel.
An account of her time touring with the Archie Shepp band are happy memories (mostly), and stories of the musicians refusing to eat inside restaurants that wouldn’t allow their “secret weapon” to join them leads into Holiday’s most-recognized song, “Strange Fruit.”
But Holiday perseveres, moving around the tables in the audience, telling race jokes and coaxing a bottle of whiskey from Emerson at the bar. In the end, she pulls herself together to deliver a fantastic climax and single-song encore met with a standing ovation.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” hits all the right notes. The jazz-club atmosphere is intimate and alluring, and the three-piece band is tight and together. To call Rolston an impersonator would be vulgar. The “embodiment” of Holiday is a better choice. If you’re a fan of Billie Holiday and her music, this is as close as you are going to get to the real thing.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport, mercurytheaterchicago.com. Tickets are $60-$70 for single tickets and $259-$299 for premium tables that seat four and come with a bottle of sparkling wine. Through March 26.