Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at Porchlight Music Theatre | Theater review
Alexis J. Rogers gives a rousing performance in this sometimes clunky musical biography of Billie Holiday.
As Billie Holiday performs at the titular Philadelphia nightclub a few months before her death, she details her past between swigs of Canadian Club whiskey and backstage injections of heroin. Yet it’s not easy to summarize the life of a visionary artist in an hour and a half. Despite a rousing performance from Alexis J. Rogers as Holiday, Lanie Robertson’s 1987 piece encounters obstacles familiar to such musical biographies. The exposition is clunky at times: Holiday drops the bomb that she was raped at age ten, then quickly moves on from the topic. One easily imagines the playwright huddled over interviews and books noting which major events he needs to cover.
As the concert-cum-narrative continues, Holiday slips into a drug-fueled haze; the wistful monologues work better as the ramblings of a heroin addict than stage banter with her three-piece band. Rogers does phenomenal work depicting the singer’s loosening grip on reality, music becoming a tether to the present as her mind drifts into the past. The vocals are spot-on, but Rogers is more than just a great mimic. Glassy eyes turn fiercely engaged when she sings, and she captures the gravelly quality of Holiday’s voice as well as the emotional fragility beneath the surface. Holiday states that music is the most important thing in her life. Rogers’s performance makes clear it’s the only thing keeping her alive.