At 15th & Bainbridge—only a few blocks from Philadelphia Theatre Company’s stage at Broad & Lombard—there stood a legendary dive bar called Emerson’s. Jazz greats—John Coltrane, Percy Heath and Lester Young— stopped in there. In 1959, the great Billie Holiday sang her heart out—nearly literally—there. And now, all these years later, Laurin Talese sings Lady Day’s songs again in a revival of Lanie Robertson’s heart- wrenching play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
Directed by Jeffrey L. Page, the show takes the fascinating script at its word: instead of sitting in the theater, the audience is in the converted backstage, with cabaret tables and some chairs arranged to suggest the bar (drinks are available).
But it’s Billie Holiday who’s drinking—pausing in mid-song to finish a glass, and then pausing again to finish a bottle. In a big white gown and with Lady Day’s signature flowers in her hair, Talese has perfected the dead-eyed stare of a habitual drunk.
In between the great songs—“When a Woman Loves a Man,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Taint Nobody’s Business” and “Strange Fruit”— she chats about her past lovers, reminisces about the horrors of racism especially when she was touring in the South, and jokes, W.C. Fields’ style, about hating Philly.
Sometimes the script is unfortunately sacrificed to realism; as she gets sicker and sicker, drunker and drunker, her speaking voice slurs and sinks to a barely audible murmur. Her raucous laughter is joyless. We watch as she deteriorates before our eyes, while her piano player, Jimmy (Will Brock) tries to protect both her and her show in what would be one of her last performances.
Robertson’s play is more than an homage; it gives us a living portrait as well as an evening of wonderful songs.
[Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 215 S. Broad St.] April 6-30, 2023; philadelphiatheatrecompany.org