by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre opened its first show in the black box studio theatre for 2010 with Lanie Robertson’s play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. This is a two-act play about the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. It will be on stage until February 28th at 11 Old Mission Avenue in downtown St. Augustine.
What made this opening weekend’s performances a must-see for the Dual Critics was that Miranda Lawson of Jacksonville performed the leading role of Ms. Holiday. We have had the privilege of seeing most of the sixty or shows in which she has appeared since starting her theatrical career at Jacksonville University. Since graduation she has been a mainstay of musical theatre in North Florida, including appearances with Theatre Jacksonville, The Alhambra, and the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus. She performed in the The Journey an NFL sponsored event for Jacksonville’s Super Bowl in 2005.
What makes Ms. Lawson’s Limelight performance so extraordinary is that she took over the leading role just seven days before the show opened. The actress originally cast in the role was unavailable for the opening due to family matters, and director Ann Kraft asked Ms. Lawson to step in for this weekend and possibly longer in the run. Having to learn 16 new songs and pages and pages of dialogue in only seven rehearsals is a daunting task. To have done it as well as Ms. Lawson, who convincingly portrayed Lady Day, is a remarkable feat.
Billie Holiday became one of the world’s most popular jazz singers in the 30s and 40s until alcohol abuse and drug addiction took their toll on her life and career. This play takes place in 1959, in a small Philadelphia night club on the evening of one of her final performances just four months before her death. She died at 44 of liver and heart failure with only 70 cents in her bank account.
Lady Day sings over a dozen songs, and interspersed with short monologues. She talks about the hard times she has had as a black woman, starting with rape at age twelve, and continuing with truancy, reform school, abuse by the men in her life and the racism that was incurred by all black performers of those years. She speaks with coarse but often humorous language to present a riveting picture of her life and her music.
If you have heard any of Holiday’s recordings, you know that she had a unique singing style. Her voice was not overpowering and she never really belted out her songs. But she did have a very special texture that is difficult to describe and even more difficult to imitate.
The musical arrangements by Danny Holgate of such songs as “God Bless the Child”, “Gimme A Pig’s Foot”, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Strange Fruit”, allowed Ms. Lawson, with her trained singing voice, to interpret the numbers in her own lovely and stylish manner without attempting to impersonate Holiday’s vocal qualities.
Ms. Lawson was dressed in a full length shimmering white gown, selected by Costumer Emily Gilandi, that captured the glamour and excitement of Holiday’s early career.
Scott Ashley’s set design created the small nightclub atmosphere with a neon sign, and a small bar to the right of a stage with only a microphone and a piano set against black walls. Ashley’s light design used a number of colored spots that changed with various songs and was operated by light and sound technician Andrew Silver.
Bryant Milano, a Douglas Anderson graduate and current UNF student plays Holiday’s Piano player, known as Jimmy Powers. Mr. Milano is very convincing in his interactions with Holiday, and especially outstanding with his precision playing of the piano.
If you are not familiar with Billie Holiday, after you see this show you will want to know more about her. There are DVD biographies available at local libraries, and the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross who earned a nomination for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Holiday was awarded a lifetime Grammy Achievement Award, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. How important is Billie Holiday in jazz history? Well, the United Post Office issued a Billie Holiday postage stamp in l994.
At the time of this writing, we don’t know who will be playing the leading role in the future productions but regardless it is a unique theatre piece and makes for an interesting evening of theatre. Seating is limited in the Koger-Gamache Studio Theatre and the first three performances were sold out, so call and reserve at 825-1164. It is good to have Ann Kraft back in the Director’s chair at Limelight, after a nine year absence.
LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM