Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – Review by Bonnie Goldberg

All Eleanora Fagan wanted in life was a house of her own, some children to fill it, and a night club where she could sing for her friends. Her childhood, however, set her on a path of sadness where her mother was frequently absent, she left school at eleven, as a teen a neighbor tried to rape her and her mother sent her to be “a maid” at a house of prostitution.

From this tragic beginning, Eleanora transformed herself into a gifted vocalist known for her style, tempo and phasing as well as her influence on jazz music and improvisational skills. Until Sunday October 16, you are cordially invited to make the acquaintance of Billie Holiday at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park in the moving musical “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” by Lanie Robertson.

In 1958, Frank Sinatra stated, “It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day’s unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” Billie sang and recorded with such stellar bands as Count Basie, Paul Whitman, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, among others, often finding the color of her skin an impediment to where she was allowed to perform. Her history with abusive men and her addictions to drugs and alcohol pursued her at every step.

Serving time in prison cost her dearly, but friends organized a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall to a sold out crowd. The damage to her career and to her addictions dictated that she only earned $11 in royalties the year before her death in 1959. Danielle Herbert is sadly luminous as Billie, as she tries to recapture the bloom on her trademark gardenia, a flower she wore in her hair nightly while performing.

Musical director Nygel D. Robinson portrays her pianist and protector, her main man Jimmy Powers, as she sings such classics as “God Bless the Child,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Strange Fruit.”

For tickets ($42.50-55, with special tickets to sit on stage with wine and chocolates), call Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford at 860-523-5900, ext. 10. or online at Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Masks are encouraged but not required. Stephanie Pope Lofgren directs this heartfelt tale of a star, one whose difficult life tried to dim her sparkle.

According to Billie Holiday, “Singing in a club is heaven,..,.and the best part of living to me.” She endured racial prejudice and great odds to overcome and reach her goals. Let her velvet voice caress you and her silky sounds and glorious vocals astound you, so you can learn the price she paid for her passion.