From the moment Alexis J Roston opens her mouth to sing her first note as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at Farmers Alley Theatre, you can’t help but feel as if you’re in the presence of Lady Day herself, a lucky audience member at one of her last performances.
The way Roston captures the spirit of Holiday as well as her voice is not so much an impression as it is a channeling.
Many a keen performer has attempted to capture the iconic jazz singer and composer known nearly as well for her long-suffering as for her genius as an artist, from Diana Ross to Audra McDonald to, most recently, Andra Day, on screen, each bringing her own take on the legend. However, to witness Roston bring her award-winning live performance to the Kalamazoo stage, is an unparalleled experience.
Under inspired direction from Malkia Stampley, this iteration of Lanie Robertson’s 90-minute biographical play with music offers a fictionalized portrayal of one of Holiday’s final performances, complete with her singing many of her most beloved songs, from “God Bless the Child” to “Strange Fruit” to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and telling woeful and humorous stories from her life, all while descending into a booze- and heroin-fueled haze.
Roston not only channels Holiday’s voice, but she offers a commanding performance that leaves the audience rapt. You can’t take your eyes off her, and though the tales she tells — from her complicated relationship with her mother who leaves her to make her way much too young as a prostitute, to her father’s suffering and death, to her destructive relationships with men, especially her first love who got her hooked on heroin, to her love of singing and the cruel racism she faced on tour, to her legal troubles — are really crammed into the script, Roston makes us feel terrific compassion for Holiday and leaves us wanting more as she saunters in and out of the spotlight, from the edge of the piano to behind the bar, lighting cigarettes, sipping gin, and at one apex moment, shooting up backstage.
It’s heartbreaking and phenomenal at once, and also, frankly, a phenomenal concert.
This show, after all, is part of this year’s long-awaited Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, and in addition to the marvelous storytelling and singing, Music Director Abdul Hamid Royal, joins Roston on stage in a dramatic role as the accompanist who keeps Holiday going emotionally as well as musically—and he also puts on a remarkable show in his own right with the gorgeous Steinway grand piano on loan from the Gilmore Festival. Together with bassist MJ Epperson and drummer Dave Van Haren, Royal puts on a show worthy of Billie Holiday herself.
Dan Guyette’s set summons the spirit of a 1950s South Philly club, with exposed brick, a false proscenium and thrust stage, and just enough space for Roston to own and the musicians to be seen. And Kristen Chesak’s lighting shows us where to look and how to feel as overhead and follow spots highlight Roston through Holiday’s highs and lows.
It’s a terrific collaboration that honors the lived experience and legend of one of America’s most innovative and soulful singers of the 20th Century with most excellent artists of today who successfully transport us in time and space.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Farmers Alley Theatre
April 29-May 15