Encore Michigan

‘Lady Day’ breaks hearts and barriers at The Whitney

Review September 28, 2018 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–Billie Holiday had such a unique style of singing, her voice so poignant, that even when she was at the microphone clearly inebriated on Bourbon and high on heroin, she could still hold the attention of an audience who wanted to hear her quavering, glorious voice.

It is this experience that defines Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, now playing in a limited engagement at The Whitney restaurant, produced by The Detroit Actor’s Theatre Company.

Ms. Holiday is portrayed by Victoria Weatherspoon, who beautifully and deftly embodies the legendary singer in one of her last performances before her death in 1959. Holiday is literally disintegrating before our eyes, even as she delivers some of her classics: ” What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless The Child,” and more. It is a high-wire act to deliver the songs, though some get interrupted by Holiday’s drug and liquor haze, and Ms. Weatherspoon is quite compelling.

The show takes place in Philadelphia, and we learn that it is one of Holiday’s least favorite places. In between songs, Holiday chatters and banters about the men in her life, her year in prison for narcotics possession (found guilty with incompetent legal representation and victimized by her lover who shoved the drugs in her suitcase as police were entering the room), discrimination she experienced while touring with Artie Shaw and her childhood.

Though she has become a beloved figure for her unique and breakthrough style of combining a blues sound with jazz orchestration, the aim of this play is to deglamorize the artist and show her dark, sad side. AS an experience, it is a theater play with music. And Ms. Weatherspoon brings considerable acting chops to the show, as well as excellent vocals that capture Holiday’s pain and style.

It is not a concert. Indeed, sometimes the haze of Holiday as she sips her drink, and then leaves the stage to shoot up, begins to wear just a bit, leaving us to wish she could get back to a song. But this is the way the play is written, and it has a purpose.
Patrons experience Lady Day in The Whitney, a historic-houser restaurant with several separate rooms. Lady Day takes place on the second floor in a room that only holds about 25 or 30, and you can buy a ticket that includes an excellent dinner. The setting of the room, with Herb Harris Jr. playing the part of accompanist Jimmy Powers, makes it feel like you are at The Emerson Bar and Grill, adding another dimension to the show.

It is sad to see the character of Billie Holiday come apart at the seams, and to see her barely hold it together for a song months before her death from liver disease. But there is also heartfelt joy when she gets going on a song, to witness the artist delivering a song that touches the heart and feeds to soul; both, of course, are touched an enriched by sadness as well as joy.

Lady Day at The Whitney is a great ticket. I hope the show comes back after this limited run.

Week of 11/27/2023

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