Review: Lady Day a faithful rendition of jazz diva’s tragic decline

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Before you head out to see Lady Day at Theater Calgary at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, listen to a few Billie Holiday classics.

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Listen to “Crazy He Calls Me”, “God Bless the Child” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” to get an idea of ​​the great jazz diva’s breathless phrasing and the way she punctuated certain words. Her voice has such a rich, almost smoky feeling, but also such a melancholy clarity.

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There is no question that Shakura Dickson, who embodies Billie for 90 minutes in Lanie Robertson’s biographical concert tribute to the First Lady of Jazz, studied these wonderful old recordings because she came close to reproducing that uniquely beautiful voice, which was also taken from the world quickly.

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Holiday died on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44, and Robertson’s play is set four months earlier in Philadelphia at a bar that is said to be as declining as Holiday was at this point in her life. Her addiction to alcohol and heroin has taken its toll, but she keeps singing because she wanted to.

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Billie travels with Jimmy Powers, her newest companion and lover who is also her guardian angel as Yanick Allwood is for Dickson. Allwood is a virtuoso pianist, but he is also an accomplished actor. He gives Dickson the support she needs, not only in the songs but also in the play’s dramatic sequences.

Allwood enters first and opens the bottle of Jack Daniels needed to get Billie through the evening. While she enables it, it’s also a loving, caring gesture, and we’ll see more of that throughout the evening.

When Billie walks in, Dickson is effervescent and flirtatious. Billie is in her happy place and it’s up to Jimmy to keep her there, but that’s difficult in Robertson’s play, where Billie wallows in all the tragedy and despair that has shaped her life. Billie was raped when she was 10 and forced into prostitution before she was 15, but Dickson has found a way of not making these revelations too sentimental. She seems to shrug off the memories like they aren’t as terrible as they sound. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself, so she thinks neither should we.

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She recalls a truly devastating time when she was barred from entering a restaurant on a tour but was forced to eat in the kitchen only to find there was no washroom for her and was taunted by the owner. To her credit, Dickson makes Billie the heroine of this sordid tale.

Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill stars Shakura Dickson as Billie Holliday and Yanick Allwood as her lover and companion.
Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill stars Shakura Dickson as Billie Holliday and Yanick Allwood as her lover and companion. jpeg

Billie says what she really wanted in life was a husband, a house and children, but admits in the song Crazy He Calls Me that she kept picking the wrong men. Towards the end of the play, Dickson leaves the stage and returns with a small dog. This is far from a gimmick. The way she cradles this little animal lets us know what a wonderful mother Billie would have been. It’s such a powerful moment and all the sadder when Jimmy takes the dog away so she can finish her concert.

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Halfway through their concert, Dickson begins gently scratching her arm and then even her shoulder. We see why when she reveals the scars of her heroin addiction under her long white gloves.

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What Dickson gives in Lady Day isn’t so much a Billie Holiday impersonation as a character study of a deeply hurt woman fighting against insurmountable odds to retain some joy and some dignity.

I wish director Ray Hogg had figured out a way to lower the standing mic Billie uses because it blocks too much of Dickson’s beautifully expressive face. Hogg keeps the piece from becoming static by having Dickson address the audience as if they were the patrons at Emerson’s bar, and he has them move around the stage, perch on a stool, and even sit at the piano.

Brian Dudkiewicz’s set doesn’t make Emersons look nearly as shabby and run-down as it should, considering it’s a mirror to her life, but the way he puts the staircase in focus made Billies despair Showing ways to get through the night is most effective.

Costume designer Adejoke Taiwo captured the classic look of Holiday and musical director Jonathan Corkal-Astorga in her songs.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is playing at the Max Bell Theater through October 2nd.

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