The Jungle Theater’s latest show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is hard to categorize. It is a beautiful piece that transforms the Jungle Theater into a bar in Philadelphia in 1959 with scenic design by Joel Sass and lighting design by Michael Wagnen. And transforms Thomasina Petrus, a favorite Twin Cities performer, into the iconic Billie Holiday, lead by the great director Marion McClinton. I say that it is hard to categorize because it doesn’t fit nicely into the bucket of either a play or musical. It is a concert of sorts, songs separated by exposition, while Thomasina Petrus as Lady Day tells us about the life and career of Eleanora Fagan, her relationships, her highs and her lows and how she came to be the Billie Holiday near the end of her career singing in front of the audience today.
Thomasina Petrus’s performance was both enchanting and engrossing. While speaking with Holiday’s iconic voice it seemed as though she had the audience’s full attention. And when she sang along with the absolutely fantastic band composed of Thomas A. West, Kevin Washington and Ron Evaniuk, it was impossible not be carried away.
I knew very little about Billie Holiday before seeing Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill besides her music. But Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill goes much deeper than that. Taking place at the end of Holiday’s career the script is able to dig into Billie Holiday’s inspiration at the beginning of her career, what it was like to be a black woman headliner in the first half of the 20th century and the racism that she faced. Into the end of her career, how after time in jail, the death of her mother, and less than positive relationships with men left her addicted to drugs and alcohol, and greatly impacted her ability to perform. This decline was evident within the show, and was heartbreaking to watch. To hear the beautiful music that Billie Holiday and her band was able to make, and how the ugliness in this world was able to eat away at it.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is playing at the Jungle Theater until June 24th. If you are a biopics, jazz music or are a fan of Billie Holiday or Thomasina Petrus this is a show that you are sure to love, click here for more information.
*Photo Credit: Dan Norman