Alexis J. Roston Captures The Soul Of “Lady Day” at Milwaukee Rep
Reviewed By: Matthew Perta
I admit I knew nothing about the life and career of legendary jazz and blues songstress Billie Holiday when I walked into the Stackner Cabaret one Sunday night in downtown Milwaukee for the opening night performance of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s staging of the hit Broadway revival, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
But thanks to this sensational production, anchored by Chicagoan Alexis J. Roston’s reprisal of her award-winning portrayal of Holiday, or “Lady Day;” Milwaukee native Abdul Hamid Royal who dazzles as Jimmy Powers on piano, and an superlative script that expertly weaves together the story of Holiday’s tumultuous life with a repertoire of songs she immortalized, I am now profoundly touched by Holiday’s matchless artistry that connected with an audience in a most intimate way.
Barbra Streisand calls herself an actress who sings; Billie Holiday was a singer who told stories through her songs, which is evident in Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. This is no musical revue, as director Leda Hoffman says in press materials put out by the Milwaukee Rep, but rather a “full piece of theater with a full story to tell.” And it does just that, brilliantly.
Set in the rundown Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Philadelphia, where Holiday actually once sang, the play suggests Holiday performed there once last time before her death in 1959 at age 44. Holiday had health problems compounded by an addiction to heroin. As Lady Day unfolds, we learn Holiday once toured with Artie Shaw and his band, and played at Carnegie Hall, so the seediness of Emerson’s represents the fall from grace Holiday took as a performer in the later stage of her life.
As Holiday, Roston sings “God Bless the Child,” a tribute to her beloved mother, whom she refers to as “The Duchess,” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” making us feel, not just hear, the expressive lyrics that come from her heart and are placed in our hearts. This is the legend that is Billie Holiday.
Amid these and other songs, we learn of Holiday’s life through intimate reminisces: She was an illegitimate child. She was raped at age 10. Her first job was sweeping the steps up to a house of ill repute. Holiday’s first lover, a man named Sonny Monroe, turned out to be her worst lover. She talks about her biggest regret – no nice home, no children, and talks at great length about the discrimination she faced as a singer of color.
Roston holds the audience in the palm of her hand with a scintillating performance that captures the soul of a singer who brought heartfelt experiences to her lyrics like no other artist of her generation.
Offering excellent support as pianist Jimmy Powers is Milwaukeean Abdul Hamid Royal. His piano playing is the stuff dreams are made of. Powers is a rock to Holiday, knowing when to remain silent and let the star shine, and when to come to her rescue when her energy starts to fade. Their playful banter on stage is golden, adding to the sparkle of this production.
Touching, funny and sad, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is electrifying theater, celebrating a great American artist in a most unforgettable way.
Roston played Holiday in an award-winning production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Porchlight Theatre Company in Chicago. If you want to catch her as Holiday again don’t delay because many performances in Milwaukee are already sold out. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater runs through Oct. 30. Tickets can be purchased at www.milwaukeerep.com, by phone at (414) 224-9490, or by visiting The Rep’s box office at 108 E. Wells St. in the heart of downtown Milwaukee.