Squeezed into a table at the Engine Room on Thursday night, with a plateful of fries and a glass of pinot. And then Billie Holiday threaded her way through the crowd to the stage, white-gowned and (elbow-length) gloved, her trademark gardenia boxed and waiting just outside of the spotlight.
Francesca Harper and JAG Productions have brought Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill to Vermont. Harper shares Holiday’s famed charisma, her eyes connecting with those of the audience, one listener at a time. Jazz legend Holiday was not known for the strength of her voice—she says so when comparing herself to Bessie Smith—but for her phrasing, and like Smith, the sense of having “lived through what she was singing.” Having said that, Harper’s own voice and delivery are beautiful and captivating.
Come for the artistry, stay for the history. Holiday’s monologues tell of the highs and lows of her own story and of America’s racism in the 1930s through the 1950s, a period of discrimination throughout the country, with segregated dining rooms and whites-only bathrooms encountered during Holiday’s tours of the South. Harper’s/Holiday’s recounting is personal, intimate, sometimes sly and comic, or more tragic than you might have known. History and art combine when she sings Strange Fruit, staged authentically with a spotlight framing only Holiday’s face.
Nygel D. Robinson is Jimmy Powers, the accompanist who worries his way through Holiday’s performance, throwing out whatever manner of prompts and persuasion he can find to get Holiday through. David Westphalen on bass and Jasper Williamson on drums comprise the remainder of the musical trio who gamely soldier on even as Holiday crumbles.
The show, because it must, goes on, until it doesn’t. A dramatic finale will propel you from 1959 into the present.
JAG Productions is taking this show on the road, with more performances at the Engine Room in White River Junction VT (May 25-27), the Grange Theater at ArtisTree in Pomfret VT (May 31-June 3) and finally, the Main Street Landing in Burlington (June 7-10). Tickets are available online at https://www.jagproductionsvt.com/tickets-lady-day-at-emerson-s-bar-g
(Photos by Joe Mastromonaco)