Theatre Review: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’ at Theatrical Outfit

Terry Burrell in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at Theatrical Outfit (Photos by Christopher Bartelski)

Theatrical Outfit is presenting a haunting, luminous production of Lanie Robertson’s play with music called “Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” directed by Eric J. Little, running through Feb. 4. Musical direction is by S. Renee Clark.

The show features actress/singer Terry Burrell as Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer who died in 1959 but whose life and 30-year career influences singers, artists, and a vast audience to this day. Ms. Burrell is giving an incandescent, heartbreaking performance which sets the bar very high indeed in this one-woman show.

Actually, she has three accompanists: William Knowles, pianist, who also has a crucial speaking part; Ramone Pooser on bass; and Lorenzo Sanford on drums and percussion. All three musicians are superb.

It’s difficult to write dispassionately about Billie Holiday; if you don’t have a least a passing familiarity with her work, life, and art, you’re missing a large chunk of the American songbook, to say the least.

She was born in 1915 and died in 1959 when she was only 44-years-old. In 1958 Frank Sinatra told Ebony magazine: “ With few exceptions, every pop singer in the states during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holliday who was, and still remains, the greatest musical influence on me.”

Not blessed with a traditionally great vocal instrument, she nevertheless pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo, and was known for her mesmerizing vocal delivery and improvisational skills. She should have been a national treasure in her own time, and she was indeed revered by many, but she had demons, within and without.

Let’s just say that the Jim Crow laws were in full effect during her lifetime, and not only in Southern states. Billie Holiday suffered humiliations no artist or human being should ever have to endure.

But does she complain about them in her engagement at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia, 1959, months before her death? Far from it: With astonishing resilience and a life force deep within her, she turns it all into entertainment. And you will be riveted to your seat as Terry Burrell, with Lady Day’s trademark gardenia in her hair, sings, reminisces, and chats with her audience—but she does the talking.

By the way, Theatrical Outfit has given her a beautiful production: Those wizards of set design, Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, have created a fully furnished and functioning tall bar on one side of the stage. A few lucky members of the audience sit at tables directly in front of Ms. Burrell and her musicians. (It’s good that I wasn’t quite that close; I think I would have become annoyingly emotional.)

But please don’t think the show is a downer; yes, there are intense sections and dialogue, especially toward the end. But you’re being entertained by a legend, and the Lady is not going to give you a bad time. You may be inspired and a bit awe-struck, but you will be uplifted and even laugh more than you might think.

You know some of her songs; they’re legendary (“God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”).

Billie tells us she’s not a blues singer; she’s a jazz singer. How easily lesser mortals could have fallen into maudlin self-pity. Not this Lady: even with the demons of drink and drugs nipping at her heels and her life, she lifts her head and lifts your spirit.

Ms. Burrell is a wonder; she uses her formidable talent, experience, and Broadway background, and recreates Billie Holiday right in front of you. Even in January, I would say we’re looking at the performance of the year.

For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

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