Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill Showcases an Astonishing Performance From Thomasina Petrus

Thomasina Petrus as Billie Holiday Photo by Yellow Tree

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is a play about one of the last performances of Billie Holiday, one of the most influential Jazz singers of all time. The play by Lanie Robertson is essentially Billie Holiday performing in a small bar set about four months before her death in 1959 at the age of 44. Holiday suffered from severe alcohol abuse and drug addiction which led to the ailments that ended her life at such a young age. The play shows us a woman doing what she loves, singing, while also doing what she can’t stop doing, drinking and using drugs. The show is filled with the songs Holiday was known for as she also tells the audience little nuggets of information about her life. Her pianist Jimmy tries to keep the show on track by beginning to play a song when he senses the monologues are getting a little to long winded, or to real. Which works because Holiday is a professional singer and performer, even after her brief intermission to shoot up in her dressing room, the familiar notes of a song will remind her why she’s there. The script masterfully weaves information about Holiday with songs while showing us the sad end of someone who could have given the world so much more if she had been able to free herself from abusive relationships and substance abuse. This easily could be a show that gets bogged down in rambling confessions, regrets, and grudges, but Robertson relies on Holiday’s professionalism to keep the show on track. We don’t spend the evening being depressed, though there is a sadness to knowing how it ends for Holiday. The show is full of stunningly performed songs, and the buzz you get when you see an actor doing something flawless and electric.

Though not technically a one woman show, that’s essentially what it is. I don’t want to dismiss the contribution of Thomas West as Jimmy. Without his delicious work on the keys, musically the show would be diminished. Lots of people can play the piano, but most cannot embody that playing with the style and brilliance that West does. The spotlight is on and belongs to Thomasina Petrus. Petrus doesn’t give us a concert in the character of Billie Holiday but a full out performance of a great singer at the end of her life, becoming more incoherent as the evening goes on. Petrus finds the balance of still giving us an amazing vocal performance so we can delight in the recreation of the legendary singers style while also having her falter as the night goes on. It’s a nuanced dramatic performance that is as accomplished as the singing is. This isn’t an actor performing the songs of Billie Holiday or a play about the end days of Billie Holiday. It is a dramatic character study of one night in the life of an incredibly gifted singer who connects with her audience through songs. She shares glimpses into her soul, both the beautiful and the tortured aspects through her songs and behavior.

All of this is set against and wonderfully realized set designed by Justin Hooper. A beautiful corner of a 1950’s bar that feels authentic especially when filled with mist giving it the look of a smoke filled room. The set is highlighted by wonderful little touches like the painted on reverse shadows of Holiday singing on the brick walls and the translucent wall into Holiday’s dressing room. The Lighting Designer Alex Clark adds to the feel of a bar from that era with lots of reds and yellows at play. The Director Austene Van and Clark also utilizes the lights in a rather clever way. At one point when Holiday is going a little further than the management would like and Jimmy doesn’t seem to be able to nudge her musically in the right direction. The lights where she is standing go off, as she moves under another light they continue to go off until she finally relents and sings a song. It’s a strong visual representation of how Holiday was being used. They don’t want to hear her thoughts, shut up and sing, entertain us, we don’t care about you, make us money. Van gives us these little moments through staging, like the lights and the peek into the dressing room to remind us, as she was struggling, others were making money off her. Enabling her to kill herself as long as it allowed her to go stage a few more times and make them their money.

Justin Hoopers set for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill Photo by Yellow Tree

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs through May 21st at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo. For more information and to purchase tickets, including VIP tickets so you can sit at one of the two tables on set as soon in the photo above, go to:

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, @thestagesofmn click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here