“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” – The Phoenix Theatre Company

Theater Review – September 14, 2023


“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”
The Phoenix Theatre Company, Hardes Theatre
Phoenix AZ

By Chris Curcio
Theater Critic

When Yolanda London sash shays on stage in a flowing pink gown, she becomes the late, great but troubled singer Billie Holiday in The Phoenix Theatre Company’s commendable staging of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

Immediately the audience returns to Philadelphia’s tacky bar back in the mid-1950’s when the singer, also known as Lady Day, is ending her brilliant singing career that was marred by drugs and alcohol.  Between songs, she tells her life stories.  Some are horrible about her upbringing; some are more pleasant about her career highlights and those with whom she performed.  We hear stories about her rebellion and her determination to have her race treated equally and respectfully. One story about her being denied restroom access is mind-altering about this repressed historic period.  It is a complete picture of the dreadful discrimination she fought that continues to this day.

London brings remarkable and statuesque reality to the long dead singer as she makes Holiday’s rich music joyously alive.  Not only is London quite an actor as she tells Holiday’s troubled life eloquently but she is a remarkable songstress who brings 15 of Holiday’s signature tunes to vibrant life.  She not only sings superbly but she makes each song’s story distinct.

Like Holiday, London plays off her excellent combo.  Pianist and conductor Deryk George adds much as he guides Holiday through her set as she allows constant drinking and other escapes to almost ruin her show.  He covers for Holiday when she abandons the stage for a time and throughout the later part of the set helps her as she struggles to remember songs, lyrics, and her stories get hazier and more muddled.

George is aided by Wallace Steele’s strumming bass and Terry “LT” Green’s throbbing drums.  The Hardes Theatre has become an elegant nightclub/cabaret and the small space keeps London and her instrumentalists close to the audience.  Superb sound helps every lyric be easily understood.  Director Chanel Bragg guides the production to allow the talent to create the characters and the set helps take the audience back in time.

The Phoenix Theatre Company’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a delicious musical gem about a great singer, her significant hit songs, and how awfully she and her race were treated in the ‘50s making the show a sad delight.  “Lady Dayn at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” continues through November 26.  To order tickets, call The Phoenix Theatre Company box office at 602-254-2151 or order tickets online at www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Grade: A