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Billie Holiday headlines ‘Emerson’s Bar and Grill’

Alexis J. Roston gives powerful performance at the Stackner Cabaret

Sep. 13, 2016
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Photo by Michael Brosilow

“Singing is living to me,” proclaims legendary singer Billie Holiday at the start of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. “But they won’t let me.” Just who is “they”?

The federal government. Racial oppression. A deeply troubled childhood. But most of all, the inner demons she battled using heroin throughout her accomplished but short life, dying of her drug addiction at age 44. Fortunately, her music and spirit live on through the multi-faceted talents of Alexis J. Roston in this intimate portrayal by playwright Lanie Roberston, which opened last weekend.

Accompanied only by her pianist, Jimmy (the highly skilled musical director Abdul Hamid Royal), Lady Day shows us the real-time decline of the singer while in the very final days of her career. It’s a bittersweet remembrance for fans; the same artist who wrote and sang her signature song, “God Bless the Child,” could not find a way to bless and save herself from the pain inside and outside.

Director Leda Hoffman wisely chooses to let Roston tell the story in her own way within the production. It’s riveting to watch Roston, despite the word-heavy script, which is bogged down in way too much detail. More of those wonderful tunes and signature style of singing is what’s needed here.

Fortunately, Lady Day delivers. Roston’s impressive delivery is deeply soulful in “God Bless the Child” and playful and light-hearted bluesy in her cover of Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot.” And for those who think that Nina Simone owns the definitive version of “Strange Fruit,” move over now. Roston’s fiercely passionate, almost militant approach conveys an entirely new meaning to this classic about racial inequality. It’s an education in a matter of minutes.

And as we see in the remaining 25 minutes of Act 2, it’s obvious the decline has set in for Lady Day; her speech is slurred, the voice fades in and out, the spirit withers. Roston’s realistic delivery is filled with tension, each inevitable slip of the downward spiral.

“Singing has always been the best part of living to me,” Lady Day says in a lucid moment toward the end. Given the outcome, this production confirms just that.

 

Through Oct. 30 at the Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com

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