Thursday, May 11, 2023

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" at Yellow Tree Theatre

To close out their 15th season in Osseo, Yellow Tree Theatre is presenting the play with music Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. The play imagines one of jazz legend Billie Holiday's final concerts before her death at the age of 44 after years of drug and alcohol addiction. #TCTheater favorite Thomasina Petrus returns to this role she's played many times in her career (I saw her do it at the Jungle in 2018), and once again gives a masterful performance. She simply becomes Billie. She said in a talkback after the show (which she does after every show for anyone who wants to stay and chat about the show, which I highly recommend) that the more she plays the role the more she's able to get out of the way and let Billie shine through. Which she does, not in a mystical spirit kind of way, but in a way in which she's telling Billie's story as truthfully as she can. It's a thing to see indeed, and you can (and should) see it for another two weekends before it closes on May 21 (click here for info and tickets).

The play begins with accompanist Thomas West at the piano, as Billie's accompanist/friend/manager Jimmy Powers (a role he also played at the Jungle, and many times previously including in the regional premiere in the '80s). Billie soon wanders in and takes the stage to sing a few songs and tell a few stories. We hear about her musical influences (Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong), her beloved mother referred to as The Duchess, her stint in jail, and the racism she experienced while traveling with other musicians in the segregated South. She doesn't shy away from the ugliness she lived as a Black woman in a racist world, but she also isn't afraid to laugh at herself and her situation. She's just unabashedly who she is. Billie slowly declines throughout the show as the drugs (which we see her take during an intermission break) and alcohol (she's constantly drinking throughout the show) in her system take effect, until she can barely sing or stand up anymore. It's a story that's both inspiring and tragic to witness.*

I can think of no #TCTheater actor/singer/performer who could play the music legend Billie Holiday (and following in the footsteps of musical theater legend Audra McDonald who won one of her six Tonys for this role) than Thomasina Petrus. Her authentic voice is something to hear, powerful and uniquely her. But for this show she sings with Billie Holiday's voice. And not Billie in her prime, but Billie at the end of her life when addiction has taken ahold of her, to the point where she can barely stagger across the stage to the microphone and sing. It takes a lot of control to play someone that out of control, and Thomasina does it expertly, in a master class on vocal control and performance. She sings a happier song as herself after curtain call and the difference is remarkable. After watching her decline as Billlie, she's once again full of life and spirit, which just makes you realize what an incredible job she does transforming into Billie.* In the talkback she shared that she first became enamored of Billie when she was 15, and it's obvious that she's studied Billie's life and music, and does her justice in this performance. But even though she's so steeped in it, she talked about the additional insight she received from director Austene Van, who's staged the play well, with an especially beautiful and poignant ending.

Yellow Tree never fails to impress with what they can do with their tiny thrust stage and intimate space, which feels especially well suited for this play. It's been transformed into a Philly jazz club in the '50s, complete with atmospheric haze. The multilevel stage has space for a gorgeous piano, a bar, and Billie front and center with an old timey mic. You can buy VIP tickets to sit at one of the two cabaret tables down in front, which looks like a great way to experience the show. But even if you're in the theater seats on three sides of the stage, it feels like an intimate club experience. Billie's backstage dressing room is behind a scrim at the back of the stage and only visible with lighting changes so that we can see what she's doing when she's off stage. The on stage lighting shifts from a soft warm glow when Billie is singing to harsher realistic lighting when she's telling her story. The sound is gorgeous; Thomasina is not miked but sings into the mic on the stand, stepping away to tell her stories or mutter to herself, clearly heard in the small space. She's wearing a gorgeous white beaded gown suitable for this glamorous (if fading) star. (Scenic design by Justin Hooper, lighting design by Alex Clark, sound design by Jeff Bailey, and costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow.)

Billie Holiday is one of those unique voices gone too soon (like her inspiration and predecessor Bessie Smith). Like Thomasina said in the talkback, her story touches on so many issues that we're still dealing with today - racism, mental health, addiction, and child abuse to name a few. Billie didn't have the resources she needed to deal with what life threw at her, but everything she had, she put into her music. 

We heard before the show that there's been some pushback from the community about Yellow Tree's choice to do this show, from people who don't want to deal with "the race issue" when they go to the theater, and just want to be entertained. But art is and always has been a way to explore issues of the day, to hold up a mirror to society. This show is a beautiful example of that, while also being an engaging and entertaining story. Like many theaters, Yellow Tree Theatre is struggling after the pandemic and leadership changes. You can support them and the meaningful art that they bring to the suburbs by attending this show or donating (they held their fundraising gala earlier this week), so that they can return for Season 16 with more meaningful, inspirational, fun, and entertaining theater.