Tuesday, July 09, 2002

'Emerson's Bar' seems bit too ladylike

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline, jdemaline@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It would be wonderful if the only thing that mattered about Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, in repertory at the University of Cincinnati's Hot Summer Nights,is how well Jasmin Walker sings the songs of Billie Holiday.

        Ms. Walker has a gift for tapping the vocal stylings of the jazz great who lived the blues.

    Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, continuing in repertory through Aug. 15, Patricia Corbett Theater, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. 556-4183.
        Billie Holiday became a star in segregated America, which meant that a lot of people hated her extra hard. And she had a way of digging for the baddest apple in the basket and falling for him. The man Billie loved the best turned her into an addict.

        Lady Day is a dramatic musical bio, a one-woman show with a back-up combo (great playing by Lady Day music director Greg Anthony, Tim Sylvester and Tony Neumayr), that catches Billie months before she died at age 44. She is down and out, a “jailbird,” and Emerson's, in South Philly, is an end-of-the-line kind of place.

        You'd never know it from this production. But I'll repeat that if all you care about is the way the songs are performed, you'll have few complaints.

        On the large Patricia Corbett stage, Emerson's looks expansive and way too good (despite the honky-tonk upright piano). Why was there no attempt to close in the playing space?

        Heavy use of solo spotlights on songs play into the impression of the big-time. Billie might as well be playing the Rainbow Room, and, worse, for half the show, Ms. Walker acts like she is.

        She sings the blues, but Ms. Walker doesn't feel the pain that lies under every line of the script that connects the songs, and director Richard Hess doesn't get her there.

        Billie tells anecdotes from her past to the audience and the patter invites laughs, but it's also supposed to lay a foundation for something larger. Without that emotional excavating, the show has a stop-start quality as Ms. Walker erupts in big dramatic moments, without letting us know how Billie got there.

        Ms. Walker is very good at mimicking being stoned for the second half of the show. It serves the harrowing stories of Billie's ruined career and life.

        A lot of dramatic layerings are missing in this production, even Billie's telling relationship with her musical director (it doesn't help that Mr. Anthony is no actor). And at Saturday's opening, Ms. Walker allowed a big song to be undone by a yapping little pooch temporarily sharing her stage.

        Even so, Lady Day landed an emotional punch at the end. It would have been a knockout if it had started at the beginning.


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