Intimate portrait of Billie Holiday emerges in Mercury Theater’s multifaceted ‘Lady Day’

Running at the snug Mercury Theater’s Venus Cabaret space, “Lady Day” stands as a showcase for Holiday and the actress playing her, Alexis J. Roston.

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Alexis J. Roston stars as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at the Mercury Theater, which she also co-directs with Christopher Chase Carter.

Alexis J. Roston stars as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at the Mercury Theater, which she also co-directs with Christopher Chase Carter.

Liz Lauren

Today’s audiences have plenty of access to Billie Holiday songs via audio recordings. But video of Holiday’s live performances remains sparse, rendering her alluring stage presence a rare experience indeed.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which debuted in 1986 and ran on Broadway in 2014, presents an intimate glimpse into this larger-than-life figure. The play is set in a dingy South Philadelphia bar in March of 1959, the sort of spots Holiday was forced to play when her cabaret license was suspended following a brief prison stint for possession of narcotics. Holiday’s most iconic hits are featured, including “Crazy He Calls Me” and “Strange Fruit,” along with musings on achieving fame for her talent, notoriety for dabbles into drugs and drinking, admiration for her civil rights advocacy, and sympathy for her history of abusive partners.

‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’

Lady Day review

When: Through March 12

Where: Venus Cabaret Theater at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Tickets: $60-$299

Info: Mercurytheaterchicago.com

Running at the snug Mercury Theater’s Venus Cabaret space, “Lady Day” stands as a showcase for Holiday and the actress playing her, Alexis J. Roston (“She the People,” “The Chi”). Roston co-directs alongside Mercury Theater artistic director Christopher Chase Carter, and the pair present a polished portrait of a megastar come undone, even if, at times, the character’s tumult calls for pandemonium.

Holiday on Broadway was famously played by Audra McDonald (“The Good Fight,” “Beauty and the Beast”), and the portrayal earned her a Tony Award in 2014 and an Emmy in 2016 for an HBO recording.

Even with McDonald looming large, Roston delivers. Her voice rings eerily like Holiday’s, including the singer’s seductive warble, playfulness with tempo and the way her nasal timbre lingers on the ends of phrases. (This is not Roston’s first time as Holiday, having previously filled this role in productions by Congo Square Theatre and Porchlight Music Theatre, for which she won a Jeff Award.)

Roston’s familiarity with the material shines during musical numbers when she digs into syllables and split seconds of the performance. On “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” she chews and savors each “Moo” like it’s the last bite from a favorite childhood meal.

Jimmy (Nygel D. Robinson) is bandleader and piano player for the legendary Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at the Mercury Theater.

Jimmy (Nygel D. Robinson) is bandleader and piano player for the legendary Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at the Mercury Theater.

Liz Lauren

“Lady Day” requires more than musical mimicry, however, and Roston offsets tougher stories with levity, exuding kindness to the audience for listening. She describes encountering racism even as an icon, not allowed to use a theater’s green room or even dine at a restaurant, instead forced to munch quickly in the kitchen.

The depths of “Lady Day” include her battles with alcoholism and drug abuse in her later years, and her death from complications of cirrhosis of the liver in July 1959. Roston’s Holiday reflects this torment by becoming increasingly belligerent as the evening progresses, and the dichotomy, between happy-go-lucky musical talent with the world in her hands and worn-down veteran losing her grip, plays out in tone. This production teases the transformation with a false start (not in the original script) in which Holiday sings the first song, “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” with robotic inflection and snoozy energy before apologizing and leaving the stage to try again. She quickly returns, and her performance oozes confidence and calm.

The script portrays Holiday’s gradual unhinging by morphing concert banter into diatribes against injustice in the music industry; confusing her piano player, Jimmy, for a former bandmate; and lengthy tangents about her past. Each sip of her drink or allusion to drug use acts as a bellwether of the darkness Holiday kept inside.

The chaos is tempered by exerting excessive control on the performers’ movement. Roston’s words slur, but when she wanders into the audience to a smaller stage in the back of the house, she performs a song then wanders back while speaking directly to the audience members with the focus of a kindergarten teacher reading a story to class. The discrepancy between sparkly and sullen Holiday is simply too narrow.

Bandleader and pianist Jimmy (Nygel D. Robinson) remains behind the keys even when speaking in hushed, worried tones to a distraught Holiday. While necessary in the small Venus Cabaret space, his static-ness reduces any discord Holiday stirs.

Still, few plays are as focused on small slices of a singer’s career, and “Lady Day” offers audiences the chance to cozy up to Roston and experience Billie Holiday in 3D on an impossibly small scale. If the Broadway production was Lollapalooza, this is the intimate aftershow.

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