'Lady Day': Table-hopping at the cabaret


You might call it "cabaret verite."

Center Stage's Head Theater has been totally, convincingly and stunningly transformed into a working cabaret for its production of Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

The multi-level seating area is filled with tables and chairs; there's a bar at the back, and waiters serve drinks throughout the show. So successful is this concept -- for which credit should probably be divided between director George Faison, set designer Christopher Barreca and Tom Sturge, who created the smoky, evocative lighting -- that it's difficult to imagine this musical biography of Billie Holiday presented any other way.

But, in fact, this is an innovative approach to Robertson's 1986 off-Broadway hit, which was conceived as a traditional theatrical presentation. The reason it works so well is that it makes the audience part of the show. Pamela Isaacs, who portrays Holiday, steps off the nightclub stage and circulates from table to table, singing or talking directly to the patrons.

Of course, none of this would matter if Isaacs weren't such a spellbinding performer. It's not that she attempts to impersonate Holiday. That would probably be futile. Not only has Holiday been described as the greatest jazz singer, but Isaacs' voice has a much mellower sound and broader range. Instead, Isaacs acts like Billie Holiday and sings like, well, Isaacs, who is a thrill to hear.

The show takes place in Philadelphia in 1959, a few months before Holiday's death. But while it is ostensibly a club act -- occurring in real time -- playwright Robertson has taken a number of liberties.

Most obviously, Holiday was known for her lack of patter. She came out, she sang -- incorporating so much drama into her songs that the effect has been compared to acting -- and then she left. In "Emerson's Bar & Grill," however, she summarizes her life story, including her Baltimore childhood, her troubled first marriage to the man who got her hooked on drugs, and her subsequent run-ins with the law.

The format is a kind of stream-of-consciousness performance in which songs remind Holiday of stories and stories suggest other songs. A monologue about her mother introduces "God Bless the Child," which she wrote in response to the sole occasion when her mother let her down. And an account of racism in the South, when she toured with Artie Shaw's all-white band, sets up the protest song, "Strange Fruit."

Isaacs isn't alone on stage. Although the script requires only a piano player (played here by David Alan Bunn), at Center Stage he is assisted by a drummer (Harold Mann), bassist (Chris Hofer) and wind player (Thomas "Whit" Williams), all of whom are not only talented artists, but also enhance the mood by providing accompaniment for some of the longer monologues.

This background music is one of several theatrical touches incorporated by director Faison as a reminder that this is, after all, a play with music -- not an actual cabaret act. On opening night, this was particularly tough to remember after the last number, "Deep Song." The audience leapt to its feet, and you half expected Isaacs to sing an encore. But of course, she didn't; it's not in the script. Instead, maybe she'll have a nice, long run. Managing director Peter W. Culman hinted at that possibility in a pre-curtain speech, and "Lady Day" deserves it.

"Lady Day at Emerson's

Bar & Grill"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. (Head Theater).

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; most Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees April 4, 10, 18, 25, May 8, 15 and 16 at 2 p.m. Through May 16.

Tickets: $15-$27.

Call: (410) 332-0033.

*** 1/2

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