Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Where: Park Square Theatre
Who: Thomasina Petrus as Billie Holiday; Thomas West as Jimmy Powers

Because I'm writing about Lady Day
for MinnPost, I go to see it ASAP—on the first night of previews. I saw Bud, Not Buddy in previews, and Blues in the Night. Not sure I'd want to see a Shakespeare play in previews. It seems best to let them work out the bugs before seeing a three-hour production.

Lady Day is a musical play about the life of Billie Holiday. Songs she sang and recorded are stitched together by scenes in which she talks about her life. Although there are two characters—Holiday and her piano player/accompanist, Jimmy Powers—it's really a one-woman play, with the actor playing Powers required to do very little acting. In its original version, it's also a one-act play. The version we see has two, a longer first act and a very short and powerful second act.

Just before the lights go down, we hear a recorded message: "Please turn off all cell phones, as they did not exist in 1959." Clever but unfortunately not completely effective.

Thomasina Petrus plays Holiday, as she did four years ago when Lady Day ran at the Old Arizona in Minneapolis. (I met Petrus in the lobby of the Artists' Quarter last week; she had come down after a tech rehearsal—the Park Square is just upstairs from the AQ—to say hi to Davis Wilson, and I happened to be passing by.) The first song gives me goosebumps. Petrus's voice and phrasing sound so close to the Billie Holiday I've heard on recordings that it's uncanny.

We learn that Holiday wrote "God Bless the Child" for her mother (who was barely older than she was); that she spent time in prison; that when she was singing in the South with Artie Shaw's band, they all ate in the kitchen. We hear tales of suffering, insults, and indignities, and we hear songs: "Where Our Love Has Gone," "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," and, of course, "Strange Fruit," after which the audience does not clap. The only appropriate response to this song—whenever it is sung, whoever sings it—is stunned silence.

Petrus is amazing. Thomas West (who plays Jimmy Powers) isn't an actor, but he is a fine piano player, and that's what matters most in this setting. The ending is a knockout.

As we get up to leave, HH notices director Austene Van sitting at the back, talking with people from the crew, taking their comments about the preview. He says "Go meet her" because he knows I want to interview her. I hesitate because I'm so moved by the play's ending that I'm not sure what will come out of my mouth. Will I calmly introduce myself or boo-hoo? I'm okay, we meet, and we exchange contact information. I look forward to learning more about this play from the director and the star.

Photo: Thomasina Petrus as Billie Holiday. Courtesy Park Square Theatre.

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