Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloverdale Playhouse Extra: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill"

For three performances only, the Cloverdale Playhouse hosted independent director Anthony Stockard's production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, a biographical songbook of one of the Twentieth Century's most popular and influential music icons -- Billie Holiday -- the legendary Lady Day of the title. -- As an opening act, Ricky Powell set an effective mood with a 30-minute set of period songs.

Set in a seedy Philadelphia "club" in 1959 [the Playhouse was transformed simply with tables & chairs on the floor in front of a small stage to replicate the place], a few short months before her untimely death at 44 from cirrhosis of the liver aggravated by her addictions to drugs and alcohol, Georgia native Ashley Bishop's Billie Holiday drifts in and out of an alcoholic haze in singing more than a dozen songs that link and comment on several important episodes of Holiday's life.

Dressed in a creamy period-perfect gown designed by Danny Davidson, wearing Holiday's  signal gardenia in her hair, and brilliantly accompanied  by Byron Thomas as Holiday's long-suffering pianist Jimmy Powers, Ms. Bishop evokes the essence of Billie Holiday rather than attempt a personification of her -- a good choice that affords her ample opportunities to showcase her own sometimes husky singing voice and acting skills as she finds her way through Lanie Robertson's intentionally rambling, disjointed, and non-linear script that captures the deterioration of the person we see before us.

Billie Holiday's life provides rich fodder for today's tabloid celebrity-fixated sensationalism, and the text honestly recounts such events in her life: rape as a child, abusive men, a strained relationship with her mother whom she calls "the Duchess", racism, drug addiction, and alcoholism, along with a series of successful recordings and performances with the great band-leaders & jazz/blues singers of her day. And, the play's focus is appropriately on the songs that often complete the episodes or reveal the struggles she was subjected to in both her private and public lives.

On her entrance, Ms. Bishop's chatty approach immediately engages the audience, and though she appears bright and happy, the first two numbers -- "I wonder where our love has gone" and "When a woman loves a man" -- despite their "bounce", tell us that this is a woman in denial, and that there is a great deal more she intends to reveal in the next 90 minutes. -- She tells us early on that "singing is the best part of living to me" [a refrain heard frequently throughout the play], and that when things get too hard to bear, Jimmy "fixes things" for her: "What a little moonlight can do" suggests that "moonlight" from Jimmy might be more alcohol or drugs to get her through her psychological pain.

Then follows a series of tawdry events that she tells with what honesty she can muster, punctuated by some fairly salty language: events she witnessed as a child in a brothel, awareness of racial divides between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South -- "all our blackness is on the outside" she says ironically -- musical influences by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Artie Shaw, and others, and her love for her first husband Jimmy "Sonny" Monroe, the man who got her addicted to heroin -- she tried it to prove her love for him, she says.

Ms. Bishop's renditions of "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit" -- the songs everyone wanted to hear Holiday sing in nightclubs -- are given with passion determined by the back-stories of her personal life, and lead to her temporary breakdown. -- After a brief intermission, she returns with assistance, defensively sings "Ain't Nobody's Business" and indicates through rambling dialogue how much she needs attention and verification of self-worth. She has come to the end of the line -- at least for this night -- and with "Don't Explain" gives the most convincing phrasing of a song in Billie Holiday's style in this show. As "singing is the best part of living" for Billie Holiday, then Ms. Bishop's singing is the best part of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.