'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill' a one-woman wonder Actress and singer Ericka Lee gives a superb performance

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2008

It's not too much of a stretch to imagine the downstairs bar at the old Elks Club on Franklin Street as a seedy 1950s nightclub - the funky ceiling fans and old-fashioned light fixtures probably date from that era. And then imagine this well-worn cabaret hosting a fading, but still brilliantly compelling, jazz songstress.

This is just what Perseverance Theatre has done with the opening of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," directed by Sue Wilder, which runs through Feb. 10. Alcohol service is provided by the Rendezvous bar 45 minutes before the show, at intermission, and after the show, for those 21 and older. Minors must be accompanied by an adult.

Actress and singer Ericka Lee gives basically a one-woman show that seamlessly weaves the somewhat sordid tale of the life of Billie Holiday with an evening of crooning, set sometime toward the very end of the jazz singer's career.

Holiday had a bitterly hard life yet became luminous while singing. Lee has captured the spirit, and even the voice, of this sassy, belligerent, unique and ultimately powerless young black girl from Baltimore who rose to brief fame, mentored by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong ("Pops"), then crashed under the weight of drugs, racism and betrayal.

Lee commands the stage, holding us in thrall. She is whimsically gorgeous in a white silk dress with Holiday's favorite flowers, gardenias, in her hair. Aside from a cameo appearance by a tiny Shih Tzu, the only other character is her piano player, played by musician extraordinaire Rory Stitt.

Their communication is exquisite. The engaging manner in which Stitt delivers his music, even more than his painfully shy character, is really the show's co-star. He smoothly tickles those ivories to steer Lady Day back into singing - 15 tunes including her signature "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless The Child" - and away from telling and reliving painful elements of her past as she inexorably becomes inebriated and thick-tongued.

There are plenty of funny moments too: Lee gets us giggling while reminiscing about sweet revenge on a prissy hostess, encountered during an earlier tour, who wouldn't let a "colored girl" use the bathroom. She sparkles and teases with that sultry contralto voice, especially thrilling in the lower ranges, then aggrieves us as she blurts out the indignities Holiday suffered during her short life.

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