Cygnet Theatre Welcomes Year with "Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill"

A Powerful Production Serenated by Karole Foreman as Billie Holiday and Damon Carter's Amazing Piano

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Karole Foreman as Billie Holiday and Damon Carter as Jimmy. Photo by Craig Schwartz

If solo shows are hard, musical solo shows, are harder. And yes, I am well aware that Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill is a two-performer show with voice and piano. What I mean is, the vocal weight is real. Cygnet Theatre started the theatre year and their last at their old town venue, with this piece starting Karole Foreman as Billie Holiday, and Damon Carter as her accompanying pianist Jimmy. 

I had not seen this piece before. A tender yet tough exploration of Billie Holiday's life and career a few months before her passing at the young age of 44. The daughter of teenage parents who suffered neglect and abuse, the pain can be felt through her songs with that powerful voice and mighty interpretation. Foreman is striking as Billie and has a smooth swagger rapport with Damon Carter who as well as being a mean piano player, is the musical director for the show. Even though Foreman is wonderful in the role, in the matinee that I saw, you could sense some tiredness in her voice. Hence my intro about solo/musical shows being harder... I could see how doing a Sunday matinee performance following a Saturday evening performance can be tough. Still, Holiday's wonderful storytelling shined through Karole's interpretation. 

Karole Foreman as Billie Holiday. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Referencing Wrent T. Brown the director of the piece, in his program letter, Sixty-five years after Holiday's death at a time -both in the States and the world- where race, gender, and the opioid crisis are being discussed loudly, this play speaks volumes on how there is still a loooong way to go. It is like crabs, three steps back, one forward. Holiday's songs also spoke volumes and still do today. This program includes a nice variety of which I appreciated "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" with a flowie jazz rhythm (auuu-uuu-uuu) and telling lyrics about finding solace, feelings, and love; one of her staples, "Strange Fruit" protesting racism and Black people being lynched. The song "God Bless the Child", written for her mother "The Dutchess", and doing a fun introduction to how good of a cook she was, and pig's feet being one of her special dishes with a little barbecue sauce after frying, "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)". 

The plot's setting is in Philadelphia's Emerson's Bar & Grill where the audience can be immersed thanks to the original scenic design by Edward E. Haynes Jr., with Mathys Herbert as associate scenic designer, bringing an older and poorly kept space where even the humidity can be seen through the walls as well as the scratched, run-down stage floor. 

All the design components of this piece are in sync with great attention to detail. I appreciated the changes in Evan Eason's sound design with the microphones, as Karole is wearing a lav that she uses while mingling and talking with the audience and, a standing microphone when singing. The sound from the lav is crisp while the sound in the standing mic is hollow, like if Karole was inside a drawer, which is realistic because Emerson's might not have the best acoustics. The white dress with satin sleeves and flowers is a beautiful costume design by Kimberly DeShazo where Foreman looks stunning along with Peter Herman's wig and makeup design that entailed a nice updo with a lush bun, and a natural face with a popping red lip. 

Donna Ruzika's lighting has two personalities: the Emerson's side where it is kind of greenish and sad, and the performing, musical side when Holiday sings, using shadows, white, and deep darks to frame Karole as she performs, but also gives the audience that momentum the songs are bringing to the show. 

Billie Holiday's life was complex, with tough challenges and struggles from a young age. What this play, written by Lanie Robertson does, is bring awareness and empathy while admiring the amazing power and wonderful storytelling Billie Holiday possessed. 

Keeping her art alive and reintroducing it to each generation that comes.

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill is currently performing at Old Town until February 18th. For performance dates and times please click here

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