Biopics can be a tricky thing.
|Photo by Dan Norman|
I always feel for actors who have to portray famous figures, especially those alive during the last 100 years or so since the film industry exploded and we have real-life video footage to refer back to. Fans can be very jealous guards of their heroes' memories, and few things are tougher than fudging the portrayal of a beloved person (read: Zoe Saldana's epic flop as Nina Simone). Thankfully Thomasina Petrus, currently starring as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill on stage at the Jungle Theater, will never have to worry about this. She gives a raw, stunning performance with a pitch-perfect voice that will leave you with chills from the moment she struts on stage.
The show feels much more like an intimate live album session than a play, which sets it apart from other biographical art I've seen and is a format I really enjoyed. Rather than flipping through the "greatest hits" vignettes of someone's life, Lady Day allows us to learn of Billie's life through her own eyes and especially voice; short monologues describing key memories are interspersed between performances of her songs with a live band to accompany. The show is divided as a real performance would be between an intermission, and just as we are allowed a window into Billie's mind through her narration, we are allowed a window into her physical reality through a sheer curtain to a backroom stocked with her most notorious vices.
Due to this structure, Lady Day is essentially a one-woman show, and it could never work without a Grade A++ performer. Audra McDonald famously played this role (and swept nearly every imaginable award for doing it) in 2014, meaning anyone else coming up has huge shoes to fill. Enter: Thomasina Petrus. Long a local #tctheater legend, Petrus lands a powerhouse impression of Billie Holiday's voice that is spot-on; seriously, close your eyes and you'll struggle to remember you're in a theater in 2018, rather than a 1954 night club.
I don't have enough superlatives to lavish Petrus with, but let me just leave you with this: her performance is dazzling, moving, and wholly satisfying. Go see her. Fill every seat, for every performance. She is worthy of all and any attention, and you will not be disappointed with her efforts.
Petrus is supported by a crack team of musicians, beginning with Thomas A. West as her band leader Jimmy Powers. West has a charming demeanor that quietly but expertly guides the band before and after she performs, and he's a perfect choice for this role. Ron Evaniuk provides a strong musical foundation on his acoustic bass. Dale Alexander did an excellent job filling in last minute for Kevin Washington on the trap set, seamlessly meshing into the band. The sound design overall (by Sean Healey) is perfect; intimate yet impressive, distinctive yet blended, and nothing gets lost or overpowering in the Jungle's cozy space.
The set is static and warm, showing the shabby chic interior of Philadelphia's Emerson's Bar & Grill. Set designer Joel Sass paid detailed attention to every inch, down to the well-worn patina on the walls, flaking ceiling tiles, dim lighting and strategically placed chips and dents on every wall and stick of furniture. The appearance feels effortless, allowing us to focus fully on the glittering diamante costumes (designed by Trevor Bowen) that shine with the same brilliance as Billie's voice. There are very few props as provided by John Novak, but they are strategic; we don't need much to instantly understand where Billie is at, both mentally and physically. The soft lighting design by Michael Wangen adds a last sheen to the performance, perfectly poising us as audience members in a dark club waiting for our star to appear.
I want to return briefly to the importance of honest portrayals in biopics, because I think it can be undervalued. The reason Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Nina Simone in Nina was such an epic fail wasn't simply based on the acting itself or physical idiosyncrasies between her character and the real thing; it was also in the perspective with which it was written. Nina, like many biopics, glorified in the darker, sadder parts of Nina's life while ignoring the overall whole. This was done under the pretense of being "honest" or "true" - but how could that be the case if it never even mentioned the good Nina Simone did, her prodigious talents, or the ways she moved the cultural conversation?
The success of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is that it avoids the trap of trauma porn. It's still honest - make no mistake, this is a Billie who still indulges her vices - but it does a beautiful job of explaining why they existed in the first place. Billie Holiday was a black woman living in America during the throes of Jim Crow; she certainly faced more than her share of horrific realities, and she dealt with them in the most successful way she knew how to. Petrus infuses honesty into every second of her performance, never cheapening or sensationalizing the real events of Lady Day's life, and it makes us feel like valuable friends, not cheap gossipers, to participate in her true confessions.
It's been a while since I had the pleasure of visiting the Jungle Theater, and what a time to come back. Director Marion McClinton has given us a lyrical, taut, glorious homage to the music of yesteryear that keeps its feet squarely grounded in believability. It's honest but respectful, featuring a very special performance from Thomasina Petrus that will move any fan. Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill is a truly special show, and I sure hope it has a run as fabulous as Billie Holiday herself. Check it out at the Jungle Theater before it closes on June 24; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.