Theater Review: 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'

Ben Miles
Stephan Terry and Karole Foreman

Tragedy and talent often seem intertwined; examples – such as Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse – abound, but nowhere is the intersection of songstress and sadness more evident than in the life of Billie Holiday, whose given name was Eleanora Fagan. Though she lived for only 44-years, her career spanned three decades and she won four Grammy Awards (all posthumously).

In 1986, Lanie Robertson’s unflenching portrait of Ms. Holiday – “Lady Day ar Emerson’s Bar & Grill” – had its premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia; soon after its debut at the Alliance “Lady Day...” landed on New York’s Off-Broadway stage, and in 2014 “Lady Day...” hit the Broadway boards. There Audra McDonald won an unprecedented sixth Tony Award in the show’s title role.

Now under the emotionally astute direction of Wren T. Brown, “Lady Day...” is onstage at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, through Nov. 3. With a remarkable characterization by Karole Foreman, it’s as if Billie Holiday – who is well regarded and long remembered for her musical originality and jazzy improvisational abilities – has come to life, and for 90-minutes shares her troubled life, the troubled times in which she lived and her vocal artistry with us in the audience.

Supported and accompanied by the powerful pianist (and the show’s musical director) Stephan Terry, who plays friend and fellow musician Jimmy Powers, we are treated to a parade of 14 of Holiday’s hits – including “God Bless the Child” (which Ms. Holiday co-wrote), “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness,” and the haunting “Strange Fruit” – each of which Ms. Foreman delivers in a manner that is enfused with an affective contralto that is a doppelgänger of Ms. Holiday’s fragile sound and style.

Adding to the ambience of the production is Yuri Okahana-Benson’s scenic design (a credible recreation of the Philadelphia locale that is Emerson’s Bar & Grill), Donna Ruzika’s well-focused and indispensable lighting design, Corwin Evans’s nuanced sound engineering and Kim DeShazo’s mid-century costuming.

For jazz and blues music aficionados, for musical history buffs and/or for those simply interested in having an engrossing theatrical experience, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is a must-see show.

 “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” continues at the International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 East Seaside Way.

Evening performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 3 p.m., through Nov. 3.

For reservations call (562) 436-4610. For online ticketing and further information visit


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