The Black Box Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center has too often felt cavernous during small-scale productions. In Pygmalion Theatre Company’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, it becomes one of the most amazingly intimate venues imaginable.
The tiered rows of seats pushed back and replaced by cabaret tables, the space is transformed into a jazz club in 1959 South Philadelphia, where legendary vocalist Billie Holiday (Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin) is about to deliver what will turn out to be one of her last performances. At first reluctant to take the stage at all, the substance- and life-damaged Billie finally emerges and eventually warms up to a casual conversation with the audience, between songs, about her life.
The musical numbers are remarkable enough. Darby-Duffin doesn’t attempt an imitation of Holiday’s unique vocal cadences as much as she interprets the singer through her own voice, resulting in powerfully distinctive renditions of songs like “God Bless the Child,” “Don’t Explain” and “Strange Fruit.”
But the real charge in Darby-Duffin’s terrific performance comes in her rapport with the audience. She strolls past the tables, her delivery utterly natural and conversational as she reminisces about the events that brought her to this place. And while playwright Lanie Robertson’s text isn’t rich with narrative content, it provides an effective portrait of the forces—particularly racism—that shaped the tragic legend. Teresa Sanderson’s strong direction contributes to a piece of theater that’s not simply a show, it’s an experience.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill @ Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center Black Box Theater, 138 W. 300 South, 801-355-ARTS, through April 10. PygmalionProductions.org