Theatre review: ICT’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

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Theatre review: ICT’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

From left: Karole Foreman and Stephan Terry in ICT’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

From left: Karole Foreman and Stephan Terry in ICT’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Photo by Tracey Roman

From left: Karole Foreman and Stephan Terry in ICT’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Photo by Tracey Roman

Photo by Tracey Roman

From left: Karole Foreman and Stephan Terry in ICT’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

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Presenting an imagined event from the end of a real person’s life, Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill treats audiences to one last performance by jazz legend Billie Holiday.

In the play, Holiday, age 44 in 1959, is performing what would be her very last show. Lady Day, which was inspired by a performance the singer gave four months before dying of congestive heart failure, features her crooning her well known tunes to an audience in a small Philadelphia nightclub. Between songs, she shares stories of her difficult career and challenging relationships– with men, with her mother and with racist club owners.
International City Theatre’s current production boasts the magnificent Karole Foreman in the lead role; she delivers impeccably in telling Holiday’s disturbing and humorous tales, but she also offers performances during the musical numbers that impress in vocal quality and land very closely to Holiday’s distinctive sound. Among those sung are: “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Strange Fruit” and, of course, “God Bless the Child,” which, the songstress explains, she wrote in response to an argument she’d had with her mother.

Backing up Foreman on piano is Stephan Terry (as Jimmy Powers), who, during a break that Holiday takes, reveals himself to be a virtuoso– surprising with his own lively, engaging performance and singing talents.
When Holiday returns to the stage, however, it soon becomes clear that, not only has the audience been watching the icon get drunk during her set, but also that her break wasn’t for coffee. In one subtle but telling moment, Powers silently directs the singer to pull her sleeve down to hide the marks on her arm. It’s a small attempt at preserving some trace of dignity, at the end of a tumultuous career that brought wonderful songs, and the end of a life that couldn’t tame its demons.

International City Theatre’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill will continue through Nov. 3, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with a 2pm matinee added on Saturday, Nov. 2. ICT is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 E. Seaside Way. More information at (562) 436-4610 or internationalcitytheatre.org.