“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” – Phoenix Theatre

This review aired on KBAQ March 21, 2016


Phoenix Theatre
Phoenix, AZ

Yolanda London becomes legendary songstress Billie Holiday in the superb Phoenix Theatre production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”  As the 90 minute show evolves, London sings through an amazing musical and dramatic evolution of Holiday in March 1959 just four months before the star’s untimely  and tragic death at age 44  from drinking, illegal drugs, and abusive relationships that caused  liver cirrhosis and heart disease.  As a jazz singer and songwriting superstar, Holiday brought many new things to her vocal career like playing with phrasing and tempos that helped her compensate for a small voice that deteriorated during her career from her constant abuse of her body.  She often performed drunk but her fans adored her.

London did the role before in a Black Theatre Troupe production several seasons ago and she’s grown stronger dramatically in the role while maintaining her vocal acumen as she soars through 15 of Holiday’s standard tunes.  Between the songs, Holiday staggers around the stage drinking and telling tales, many true, about her career’s evolution and the awful challenges she faced during her troubled life.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” gives the audience two major treats, a stirring retrospective of Holiday’s music and singing career plus a shatteringly unbelievable view of what it was like to be a Black performer during this country’s unlawful segregation.

London’s musical backup comes from a trio of piano, drums, and cello headed by Geibral Elisha on the piano as Holiday’s conductor Jimmy Powers.  These musicians bring the right touch of jazzy syncopation to Holiday’s songs while London’s sultry vocals are flawless re-creations of Holiday right down to facial expressions, body movements, and her relaxed style with her audiences.

A simple set complete with red velour curtains set off Holiday’s concert and London and Phoenix Theatre as turned the intimate Hormel Theatre into a tiny nightclub.  Around the stage are several small tables where audiences can order drinks as they enjoy London’s performance while the cabaret tables are surrounded by traditional seating that not only makes the audience part of the show but in a space that one would imagine a live Holiday performance might be.  Even London’s striking white gown, designed by Josh Lutton, artfully adds sheik professionalism to the production.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is both a brilliant testament to Billie Holiday while Yolanda London’s artful impersonation and lush vocalism crown this production that continues through April 3.  For tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 602-254-2151 or order online at www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Grade: A