In March 1959, the time setting for “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” now receiving a mostly satisfying production at Rep Stage, Billie Holiday was a mere four months away from her death at the age of 44.
Years of substance abuse had taken a toll on her health and her voice, but, as her last album made that month in 1959 confirms, she was still every bit Billie Holiday where it counted — in the wonderfully free rhythm of her phrasing as she burrowed into the lyrics of a song; in those little telltale scoops between notes that were so long a part of her musical punctuation.
In “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a play-with-music from 1986, writer Lanie Robertson imagines Holiday giving a late-night performance in a seasoned Philadelphia spot.
Rep Stage conjures up the place with the help of a scenic design by Mollie Singer, atmospherically lit by Jay Herzog. Completing the picture is a seating arrangement that puts the audience at small tables.
When a reluctant Holiday is coaxed to the spotlight, she doesn’t just go through her song list (the intermission-less play packs in more than a dozen numbers, not all of them the artist’s best-known).
In between the songs, she treats her fans to anecdotes about her life and trials, getting looser and more revealing every time she sips another glass of gin. The script is sometimes forced or formulaic, but it provides an effective glimpse into a scarred, maybe scared, artist.
To put all of this across obviously requires a performer with considerable singing and acting chops. The Rep Stage production, directed by Danielle A. Drakes, features the talented Celeste Jones in her company debut.
Elegantly costumed by Benjamin Kress — the look evokes the cover of Holiday’s penultimate album, “Lady in Satin” — the actress impressively delivers the theatrical goods, portraying a singer already under the influence as the show begins and steadily getting more so.
She makes the dialogue feel spontaneous as the stories — funny, rueful, vulgar, touching — spill out. We hear about Holiday’s mother; the years growing up in Baltimore; a tour with Artie Shaw and his band in the Jim Crow South; troubles with the law; resentments about those who insist on hearing the same old songs, and those who dismiss her as “Lady Yesterday.”
Jones is so good at this that I hate to mention what she falls short on — a thoroughly convincing evocation of Holiday’s singing.
No, I wasn’t expecting a spot-on imitation, the sort Audra McDonald magically achieved when she performed “Lady Day” on Broadway in 2014 (earning her sixth Tony Award). But I was hoping for something closer to the mark.
To be sure, Jones makes a physically persuasive Holiday when she sings, down to the quivering right arm. The problem is that she’s too refined a vocalist.
Although Jones interprets up-tempo numbers and ballads in an equally stylish manner, her well-focused tone and sparing use of vibrato are far removed from the earthy, unpredictable quality of Holiday’s later-years voice. And that limits the play’s potential impact, dampens what could be a visceral connection to Holiday.
Another limitation comes from pianist Wil Lewis III, whose playing could use greater nuance of articulation, elasticity of phrase. Bassist Gary Richardson and drummer Evander W. McLean offer solid contributions.