Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Great art may be born of personal pain, but most of the time, it needs to be aesthetically transmogrified — stepped back from and reworked just enough to make it resonate with the audience. Most of the time. But every now and then, someone sings their way out of the whorehouse into the history books without changing much of anything. Billie Holiday may have had a smallish voice and a smallish range, but she squeezed a huge amount of feeling out of both, and she was a hell of a lyricist to boot. She may have written “God Bless the Child” with Arthur Herzog, Jr., but it was her experience: an argument with her mother about money. And so: “Mama may have, papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own. Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose, so the bible said and it still is news.” It surely helped (her art, anyway) that love done her wrong, that her “first love/worst love” Jimmy Monroe was not only an addict, but an addict who wanted a companion on the journey down. All this is to help explain why Lanie Robertson’s play, which lets Karole Foreman spill out Holiday’s story in between the songs of a late-career set in Philadelphia, works better than some other jukebox musicals. It all feels so close to the bone, even when she’s singing other people’s material — even when it’s something as seemingly lighthearted as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” She sings it early on, and it’s delightful and optimistic, like “the new Billie” herself. But after a night of drinking, reminiscing, and eventually dancing with her old devil, she slurs her way back to the tune, and it becomes tragic. What a little moonlight can do to you, indeed.
Ongoing until Sunday, February 18, 2024