When VH1 began airing those famed “Behind the Music” episodes in the ‘90s, audiences were propelled into the debaucherous worlds of well-known musicians. It showed how performers and bandmates rose to fame and underwent a host of hard knocks in life. Poor choices—arrests, drug addictions, bankruptcy, theft, homelessness—overshadowed their vast talents. Yet, many of those unfortunate incidents inspired some of the greatest music ever made. Sometimes, it also led to the demise of one’s music, if not his or her life. Put simply: Billie Holiday is the perfect subject matter for the famed TV show—and, quite frankly, would make a better subject than some of the bands they choose nowadays (uh-hum, here’s looking at you, Train).
Holiday’s life marked all the checklists for the formula of befallen celebrity, and Red Barn Studio Theatre welcomes audiences to experience a live version firsthand over the next few weeks. Only, it’s not narrated by VH1’s John Forbes (to be clear, nor is the show affiliated with the series). Instead, audiences will get a “real-life” storytelling session and concert from LaRaisha Burnette, who brings back to life the sultry jazz siren that was Eleanora Fagan, a.k.a. Billie Holiday.
This show is a double-first for Burnette, who is helming a lead role and doing her first one-woman show. Here, there are no secondary characters to carry this story (aside from two very wonderful musicians who certainly add to the feel of the jazz club, Emerson’s Bar and Grill). Burnette must ride it out with every note, every inflection, every nuance of emotion, and every carefully constructed movement, and use of space. To be clear: She nails it on every account.
Created by Lanie Robertson in the ‘80s, but debuting off-Broadway in 2014, starring Audra McDonald, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” takes us through the life of Holiday in the midst of her last performance in a place she despises: her birthplace, Philadelphia. Holiday lets us know quickly of her disdain: “I used to tell everybody, when I die I don’t care if I go to Heaven or Hell, long’s it ain’t in Philly.”
Burnette truly embodies this tortured soul from the first mark of the show. She hits the stage, letting us know that Billie already hit the hooch—maybe the needle—before belting the first note. Burnette’s Billie graces the audience with dazed eyes, slurred speech, and wobbly stature—but it never feels like a caricature. While we know as she approaches the mic that she’s twisted, all of it dissipates as she performs her first two songs of the evening, “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” and “When a Woman Loves a Man.” Burnette shows us how Holiday escapes, and in reciprocation, somehow, we do, too.
Without a doubt, Burnette’s voice is magic. She knows this music; it’s clear it’s in her bones. She closes her eyes, gently sways or slightly bounces, and just goes somewhere otherworldy to deliver every note played by drummer Desmin Gore and pianist Bryan Simmons—who also acts as Jimmy Powers, with whom Holiday toured and dated at the end of her life. Live music is mandate to any bio-musical. These fellas could have played all night and I would have stayed ‘til morning’s dawn to revel in it. Red Barn is built for great sound, too, so the room punctuates every tickle of the keys and palpatation of the snare. If you close your eyes and just listen, it’s transportive, if not transformative.
Again, it all comes back to Burnette. I would never call this characterization of Billie “lucid.” And, quite frankly, I can’t blame the singer for her various mechanisms of escape, especially after hearing the atrocities of her life: undergoing attempted rape, growing up in a brothel, entering an abusive relationship that introduced her to heroin, having multiple arrests and a prison sentence in a West Virginia penitentiary, enduring her grandmother dying in her arms when she was 7—not to mention the depth of racism and bigotry she experienced as a black, female celebrity and jazz singer in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The stories truly feel torturous—to the point my theatre companion and I wished Red Barn had gotten a liquor license just for this event. A few mind-numbing martinis would have helped the audience, too.
When Burnette loses herself in these stories, there is a deep level of sadness that emanates from her soul. It’s raw pain—pure and simple—and it’s only masked by a refill of her gin and a set break for a fix. Every detail of the show is thoughtful. When she exits for her untimely intermission (not the audience’s; it’s an intermission-free show), the band keeps playing, as if it’s just another night on the road with Billie. Her arrival back onstage reveals a fallen glove, which she asks the drummer to pull up for her. It’s a slight movement that shows us why Holiday wore long gloves—to hide her track marks. This quick sojourn mid-show felt plausible after watching the performer go down the rabbit hole of her life.
Her return to the stage also brings with it a deeper solitude, again prolifically magnified by Burnette in a graceful yet brassy boldness that fleshes out Holiday’s personality. She’s quick to make jokes, interact with the audience, relive her misfortunes with complete vulnerability, and without apologies. From stage to bar to table, Burnette walks the walk and talks the talk.
And, boy, can she sing! Her renditions of “God Bless the Child,” written for Holiday’s mother, “The Duchess,” Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pig Foot (and a Bottle of Beer),” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and “Somebody’s on My Mind” astound. However, Burnette’s full emanation of character comes more than halfway into the set list, when she finds that perfect balance of Billie’s voice and her own. “Strange Fruit” will bring chills to the audience. My only qualm is with the fact that some dialect gets over-stylized with that muted horn sound that Holiday mastered. When Burnette drops that expectation and manages to find the sweet spot between her natural voice and Billie’s, it’s perfection.
The set, done by Randall Enlow and Lance Howell, is great. The audience is set up in the round, with nightclub tables scattering the front, and a perfect bar in the back corner, all facing the stage. Lighting by Thomas Salzman is cozy; direction by David Loudermilk brings to life the seedy intimacy of the show. Perhaps one of the main technical aspects not covered is how Holiday often would require a really tight spotlight on her during performances, so she didn’t have to see the audience. I don’t recall this happening. “Deep Song” ends the hour-and-a-half performance in black—with a variation of lights dimming throughout the house, ending with Burnette highlighted before fading out. Though befitting to the material, I wanted to see a very fixated and compacted glow on Burnette only, without distraction. Perhaps this couldn’t be done in the space; I don’t know. But, like Holiday, Burnette deserves even more of that undivided attention.
No need to wait for VH1 to release another episode of “Behind the Music” (the last one was in 2014). Red Barn has a live version which surpasses the show tenfold—a tell-all and a concert in one. Led by a phenomenal local actress (and lead singer of local band LaCi), Burnette will earn a notch on your radar from here forward.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
4 1/2 out of 5
Red Barn Studio Theatre
1122 S. 3rd St.
June 11-28, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.;
Sun., 3 p.m. • Tickets: $25
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