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Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
e last days of Billie Holiday have been memorialized by Lanie Robertson in his bio-drama in the only way that makes sense: as a concert, the next to last the singer ever gave, in Emerson's Bar and Grill, a haunt of jazz musicians in South Philly. Philadelphia was a place of bad memories for Holiday; she had been arrested and convicted of drug charges there, and the bitterness that surrounded her mean history, despite her popular success, was reaching its zenith by that 1959 booking. She had a history of addiction to alcohol, marijuana, opium, and heroin, and she was fighting heart and liver disease and withdrawal at the same time. Four months later she was dead at age 44. Peggy Ann Blow undertakes the role of Lady Day with the same emotional energy and passion of the woman she channels. It's not the appearance of Holiday she emulates but rather the spirit, the soul. Blow triumphed in the same role at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival last year and has clearly spent months ingesting the legend and the aura of the legendary singer and making it her own. Between vocals, Blow's portrayal takes on a lot more than the patina of a woman who called her own shots; she wraps herself in the pain and the glory of a life that may have been misguided, for whatever multiple reasons, but was never dispassionate. It's not an echo of the singer's haunting voice one hears but rather the raw interior of pain that made up so much of her life. Interacting with Jimmy Powers (Herman Jackson) on piano, Lady Day riffs familiarly about their lives together, as she mistakes him for the husband who turned her on to heroin. When Holiday has to leave the stage for a heroin fix, Powers' pain and fear for her are palpable. In such numbers as "When a Woman Loves a Man," "Strange Fruit," "T'ain't Nobody's Biznez," and "God Bless the Child" (Holiday's own composition), Blow shines luminously. If the accompaniment (Jackson and Del Atkins on bass) swamps the opening numbers in volume, the level is quickly adjusted as the play progresses. Alex Miles Jr. is Emerson, and Pepi the Chihuahua is played by Se?or Butch. The savvy Senor made a premature appearance on opening night but was nicely incorporated into the action and returned a little later to nuzzle on cue during Pepi, Blow's own composition but very much in the spirit of Holiday's music. Desma Murphy's practical and appealing set design, aided by Kathi O'Donohue's lighting and Naila Aladdin-Sanders' costumes, doesn't forget the bouquet of white gardenias, from which the singer culled her hair ornament, that were a staple at Holiday's concert
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