The eponymous Emerson’s – the setting for Lanie Robertson’s emotive play about the life of Billie Holiday – is a smoky, smalltime bar in South Philadelphia and the location of some of her last performances. The year is 1959, months before the jazz legend’s death at the age of forty-four, and by this time Lady Day is on a downward slide. She’s done a stint in prison on drugs charges and her best days are firmly behind her.
Accompanied by Warren Willis on the piano, Billie sings her way through the expected standards: ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’ and ‘God Bless The Child,’ pausing between songs to reminisce about her past; about her mother the ‘Duchess’ and her tendency to go for men who are no good for her. As the evening progresses these interludes get longer, the stories darker in content. Life has been tough for this lady and it shows; clad in satin she fidgets with her dress and frequently totters up to the piano on precarious heels before popping off stage for a steadying shot of her own particular ‘moonlight.’
It’s a simple set that awaits us at the New Players Theatre: a curl of neon, a big black piano and an old-style microphone stand. But, with a performance as strong as Dawn Hope’s at the heart of the production, little else is needed. It must be a daunting task to portray such an iconic figure on stage, inhabiting the character both vocally and emotionally, but Hope pulls it off with some style. Hers is not a note perfect impersonation – it would be impossible to reproduce that famously fragile yet powerful voice – but instead she gives an intelligent interpretation of a woman who could never fully escape the many tragedies of her too-short life. And of course, Hope, whose last West End job was as part of the excellent ensemble cast of Simply Heavenly is blessed with an impressive voice of her own so her reworkings of these familiar songs are pleasurable in their own right.
In parts this is reminiscent of the current Rat Pack musical – it taps into the same nostalgic impulses, the same awkward need to try and hold onto a lost musical age – but just as the Strand Theatre can never recreate the Sands Hotel, the subterranean New Players, with its echo of trains passing on the tracks above, is never going to feel that much like a smoky 1950s American bar. Fortunately Robertson’s play understands this and aims higher. The Rat Pack show may undercut the coolness of its characters with a few references to the racial politics of its day, but Lady Day pulls no punches in its account of Holiday’s hard life and the realities of being a black performer touring the Southern states of America in the first half of the 20th century. Despite her celebrity she was still often forced to take her meals in the kitchens of the restaurants they visited and her quest for the ladies room in one such Whites Only establishment results in one of the play’s standout anecdotes. And of course there is the astonishing Strange Fruit, that most moving reminder of the Southern attitude to back people.
As the between song banter becomes increasingly more rambling and pathetic, there are a number of occasions when less would certainly have been more. The ravages of drugs on the woman are evident from Hope’s performance so it seems a bit unnecessary to have her reveal the trackmarks peppering her arm; the play excels in its subtler moments. But, having said that when Hope performs her magnificent, tear streaked and soaring version of Good Bless The Child there can have been few people in the audience who weren’t inclined to cry along with her.