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REVIEW: Thomasina Petrus Shines in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (Jungle Theater)

Many jazz greats passed away long before I could see them. Billie Holiday, also known as Lady Day, was among the greatest of the jazz greats. I never had an opportunity to see Billie Holiday sing live, but I suspect that Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is the next best experience.

Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” has always been one of my favorite songs. Growing up, however, most of what I knew about Billy Holiday was from the Diana Ross’ movie Lady Sings the Blues and old recordings by Holiday that played on FM radio (the late great KQ station) in the 1970s.

Thomasina Petrus as Lady Day herself, Billy Holiday. Photo by Dan Norman.

Lanie Robinson’s play centers on a concert that Billie Holiday performed a few months before her death. Under the direction of Marion McClinton, Lady Day gives us much more than a discography – it provides an intimate evening with Holiday, a troubled soul who channeled her life into incredible interpretations of the blues.

Thomasina Petrus originally appeared in this role at Park Square Theatre in 2008. In this production, she not only revives the role but inhabits Lady Day. The show does not sugar coat Holiday, but shows her as she was: a drug addicted singer who is scarred by her addiction, the sexual abuse she experienced growing up and racism. She clearly is on her last legs as she shares her troubled life and her recent imprisonment for the crime of addiction. Petrus portrays Holiday as stoned during the second half of her set which is how Holiday must have often been in concert. She recounts how this awesome talent was unable to perform in clubs in New York City because of her drug conviction and was plugging away making a living singing at any dive that would book her. Despite all the tragedy and drugs, Petrus is able to convey the beauty of Holiday’s voice and her rich legacy of songs.

Petrus’ monologue with the audience strikingly ties Holiday’s life stories to her music giving these songs an even greater meaning. In addition to “God Bless the Child”, which Holiday co-wrote, Petrus gives a classic performance of Holiday’s anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”. She masterfully sings Holiday’s classic “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” which went on to be covered by performers such as Frank Sinatra.

Backing Petrus on stage on opening night was Dale Alexander as drummer (in place of the listed player Kevin Washington), Ron Evaniuk on bass, and Thomas A. West as both music director/pianist. Jimmy Powers does a fine job of the exasperated keeper who must persistently push Holiday to get on stage and sing.

Petrus has always been one of my favorite performers since I first saw her in Park Square’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women. She is often underutilized in productions so it is great to see her front and center giving a performance for the ages. If you miss this Jungle production, your next best chance is to see Petrus perform the songs of Billie Holiday on July 2 and 3 at the Dakota Jazz Club.

Lady Day plays at the Jungle Theater through July 1, 2018. Petrus will also perform the songs of Billie Holliday at the Dakota Jazz Club July 2-3, 2018.

Bev Wolfe