Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at Spotlighters Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

It’s astonishing what a little moonlight can do. And it’s a full moon over Mount Vernon in Charm City for the next three weekends as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill lights up the stage at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre. Featuring solo performer Anya Randall Nebel as the legendary Billie Holiday under the Direction of Jared Shamberger and Musical Direction of LeVar Betts, this truly haunting and powerfully evocative musical tale is not your ordinary jukebox musical. It is not even just the music of Billie Holiday on display for those that love her unique, smoky sound. This is the end of a story— not the bright bursts of luminescence that were Holiday’s heyday— but the tragically beautiful deterioration of a star that burned out too quickly and the fizzling stardust that remains of her once magnificent life. Gripping from the get-go and riveting until the end, Lady Day is an experience that will take you back in time to relive those moments in a striking and emotionally visceral fashion.

Part of the Emerson Bar & Grill, crafted by resident Scenic Designer Alan S. Zemla for Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill now at Spotlighters Theatre
Part of the Emerson Bar & Grill, crafted by resident Scenic Designer Alan S. Zemla for Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill now at Spotlighters Theatre CMAldridge Photography

Resident Scenic Designer Alan S. Zemla fabricates the interior of Emerson’s Bar & Grille in a simplistic but smart fashion. The deep red-brick walls, all carefully hand-painted into place, creates that underground dive-bar scenic atmosphere of the late 1950’s while simultaneously capturing the hints of blue in Lady Day’s dress under the skilled illuminative talents of Lighting Designer Chris Holland. Zemla and Holland work together to showcase the emotional motivators of each musical number, timed with the swells and crescendos of the diva’s breakdowns as they ebb and flow over the course of the evening. The black and white framed pictures of famous inspiring musicians from early decades line the walls as well and Zemla carves out the perfect niche for live pianist and Musical Director LeVar Betts to become an active and integral character throughout the performance.

Dramaturg and Acting/Dialect Coach Tom Flatt works with actress Anya Randall Nebel to recreate the essence of Billie Holiday live before our eyes and the result is both spectacular and jarring. The show is written to depict Holiday at the end of her career— broken, washed out, and clinging to her stardom and magnificence by a frayed and frazzled thread. Nebel, with Flatt’s vigorous coaching, masterfully delivers the unique and iconic sound that is associated with Billie Holiday, not only in her clumsy yet carefree speech patois but in her style of singing. Overly modified vowels, the smoky restraint that prevents the performer from belting out her enormous vocal talent while still delivering a quality sound as Holiday, all of these affectations are perfected into place through Flatt’s diligent work and keen perception of how to portray Billie at the end of her days.

The story itself, written by Lanie Robertson, has the slightest imbalance of salty and soul-searing anecdotes juxtaposed against the music which is wended throughout these reminiscent tales. Nebel, under the strong guidance of Flatt and Director Jared Shamberger, captures each moment of lively reverie and breathes it out to the audience like a poisonous cloud slowly seeping into the roots of the most beautiful rose to canker its bloom before nightfall. Nebel approaches the character as if she were on her own personal holiday fueled by whiskey and the light of a long-forgotten star that once ignited her passion for song. The character plot is deliberate, every stammer, every staggered stumble, every pause to process what has been said or is about to be said, each moment capturing the essence of the broken star in a most heartbreaking fashion delivered flawlessly by Nebel.

LeVar Betts (left) as Jimmy Powers and Anya Randall Nebel (right) as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
LeVar Betts (left) as Jimmy Powers and Anya Randall Nebel (right) as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill CMAldridge Photography

Musical Director LeVar Betts plays a mean piano, his ivory tickling skills leaving nothing more to be desired except the audience’s need to hear more of it. Betts, who has an excellent repartee with Nebel as ‘Jimmy Powers’ when it comes to keeping her on track with the music, has a hint too much modernity in his textual delivery. Sounding a bit like a polished and educated man from 2009 rather than 1959, Betts creates the only hiccup in timeline consistency in the production, but this is a readily forgivable error as he is quite impressive as the show’s live-featured accompanist.

Nebel’s performance is nothing short of dazzling. Encompassing humor, sincerity, fiery edges, harrowing heartbreak, striking struggles, and all that other damn shit, Nebel becomes this faded wonder desperately clinging to her memories as they wash over her again and again. Many of the anecdote lead-ins are surprisingly sentimental but driven with a darker emotional motivator and often shift the tonality of the song. Nebel’s ability to carry these shifts into each musical number is astonishing, making for a solid connectivity between story and song.

Anya Randall Nebel as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill
Anya Randall Nebel as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill CMAldridge Photography

Showcasing a variety of vocal talents throughout the performance, Nebel delivers the music of Billie Holiday with a marvel and wonder. Going from numbers like “Pigs Foot”, which gets the whole house clapping and hopping along in their seats, to “Strange Fruit,” a brutally harrowing and soul-searing number that rips the emotional core of her heart out from her roots, Nebel knows no bounds when it comes to versatility. A remarkable performer with exacting stage presence, lively grit in her soul as well as her song, Anya Randall Nebel does Lady Day a great justice with this sensational performance.

You can only get to where you at by way of where you been, as Lady Day says. And if you have any good sense, you’ll make sure that you get to Spotlighters Theatre, by way of whatever gets you there quickly for this limited three-weekend engagement, so as not to miss the incredibly talented and truly exceptional solo performance of Billie Holiday in her darkest hours.  

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes no intermission

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill plays through April 3, 2016 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.

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