Karole Foreman as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." Photo by Craig Schwartz
Memo to GOP presidential candidate Nikki (“We’re not a racist country. We’ve never been a racist country.”) Haley: You need to see – and hear – “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”
Lanie Robertson’s play with music, which imagines the legendary but troubled Billie Holiday performing in a South Philly bar late in her career, is quite amazingly more about what Lady Day says than what she sings. During the course of a real-time-seeming hour and a half set, drinking and smoking the while, her composure gradually deteriorates – but not her memory of the cruel treatment she received as a Black woman, even one who was a hailed musical star. Her recollection of these atrocities in all their ugliness can turn a theater stone cold silent.
As it did in moments at Cygnet Theatre, which in association with L.A.’s Ebony Repertory Theatre, is presenting “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”
Actor/vocalist Karole Foreman is a veteran of this role, having starred in “Lady Day at Emerson’s” four times prior to this staging. Her performance is seamless in what has to be a physically and emotionally grinding part – and at Cygnet, she does two shows on Saturdays during this run yet.
Accompanying her on piano is Damon Carter as Jimmy Powers, friend-in-charge of keeping the set on track and to some extent keeping her upright.
Striking in a white dress and in the latter part of the show with Holiday’s familiar gardenia pinned to her hair, Foreman does not try to reproduce Lady Day vocally, though if you know the jazz great’s catalog, you’ll hear her distinctive phrasing just as it sounded on records.
Early in the going, when rendering “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” or “When a Woman Loves a Man,” Foreman’s Billie is poised at the mic stand, an established pro. As the imaginary evening progresses, her asides and painful stories supersede the musical performances: songs become fits and starts; Jimmy has to cue her at the keyboard to kindly but firmly interrupt the meanderings; trips to a table where the booze waits to be poured and the lighting of cigarettes increase.
Here’s where we return to that memo for Nikki Haley and anyone else who chooses to look the other way on America’s shameful racial history. Robertson’s script pays heed to Holiday’s substance abuse, domestic abuse and legal struggles, but rightly emphasizes the terrible prejudice Billie Holiday endured. One recollection onstage in particular, about touring with Artie Shaw’s band and being denied in a White venue basic access to a restroom, is the saddest and most infuriating, even as Lady Day ends the story with her uproarious act of revenge.
Maybe this doesn’t need saying, either, but when Foreman returns to the microphone to sing “Strange Fruit” (Foreman called that “the first protest song” in an interview she did with me for the San Diego Union-Tribune), it is a chilling, time-just-stops moment.
The heaviness of this show, which was first staged in the ‘80s, does not completely detract from the music. We hear “Easy Living” and “Somebody’s On My Mind,” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and of course “God Bless the Child.” Foreman and Carter make a wonderful team.
I first saw “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” at ion theatre in 2015, with Cashae Monya starring. The size of ion’s tiny venue at Sixth and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest necessitated ingenuity of staging, and converting the place into a cabaret, complete with little tables and chairs, resulted in a “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” that Robertson probably envisioned from the start.
At Cygnet, where the show is directed by Ebony Rep’s Wren T. Brown, Foreman is close to the audience and she does step down to walk among the front-row theatergoers here and there, but it’s still a conventional performance space, and the cabaret effect is never fully achieved.
Even so, the more people who hear again (or for the first real time) the musical brilliance of Billie Holiday and, more important the tragedies and little triumphs of her life, the better. You could fill 10 SoFi Stadiums with this show and still have so many people who need to know about and hear the unforgettable Lady Day as perhaps she was on some dive-club night before she left the world.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” runs through Feb. 18 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
Brian Mackey and Rachael VanWormer in "Outside Mullingar." Photo by Ken Jacques
Brian Mackey at his best distinguishes Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar,” an atypically non-grim Irish story that in the end becomes a quirky romantic fairytale.
With an almost endearing nervous energy of the kind that accompanies (we will find out) a secreted neurosis, Mackey portrays Anthony Reilly, the 40ish son of an ailing farmer, both of them residing outside Mullingar in County Westmeath, Ireland. In Shanley’s tale inspired by his very first trip to Eire more than 30 years ago, Anthony’s anxiety gets immediately ramped up when his father, played on the night I saw “Outside Mullingar” by Robert Smyth’s understudy, the very capable Eddie Yaroch, reveals that he does not intend to leave the farm after his death to his son. “You don’t love farming!” is the accusation, though as events unfold it’s learned that this is a smokescreen.
At Lamb’s the 10-year-old “Outside Mullingar” is being collaboratively directed by Smyth, Kerry Meads and Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who also appears as Aoife Muldoon, a neighboring farm owner and at the outset of the play just widowed. Completing the cast is Mackey’s spouse, Rachael VanWormer, as Rosemary Muldoon, Aoife’s headstrong daughter who’s been waiting for decades for Anthony to woo her. (This in spite of the fact that she still resents his knocking her down when she was a child.)
So you’ve got two pairs of spouses in this production: Smyth and Gilmour Smyth, and Mackey and VanWormer. As noted above, Yaroch was understudying Saturday night so I wasn’t able to observe the Smyth/Gilmour Smyth dynamic, though I hardly needed to. They’ve performed together more than 30 times. Mackey and VanWormer are a fine onstage match, particularly in the play’s latter half when the story shifts from the disconnect between Anthony and his father to the descendants left behind after the elders’ passing.
Leading up to its startling reveal, “Outside Mullingar” drops hints and clues and gems about where its deceptively linear story is going, most of these not understood until after that reveal itself. Shanley could be accused of trying to be too cute with this play, and many, as I was the first time I saw it years ago, will be slightly if temporarily aghast at the turn “Mullingar” takes.
But by the time the show is winding down, hankies may be necessary.
Among his strengths in this production is Mackey’s mastery of and commitment to the Irish accent he employs – it never wavers. In a small part, Gilmour Smyth does the same. As the fiery and understandably frustrated Rosemary, VanWormer’s Irish occasionally gets lost in her consternation, but she enjoys multiple moving moments in the part.
Yaroch’s a bit one-note, his grudges grumbled, his stubbornness stolid, though his last scene with Mackey feels genuine and is touching.
There are quite a few laughs in “Outside Mullingar,” some no doubt incited by sheer astonishment, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy. Nothing as profoundly Irish as a play set near a village called Killucan can escape a certain broodiness.
Still, Shanley wrote the screenplay for “Moonstruck,” so he knows how to write humor. And romance. And family. He can be forgiven for teasing us possibly too much in “Outside Mullingar” – or maybe he should be applauded for doing so.
“Outside Mullingar” runs through Feb. 18 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
Nedra Snipes (left) and Arizsia Staton in "Intimate Apparel." Photo by Aaron Rumley
There’s a very good reason that Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” more than 20 years on is so frequently produced today: It’s a graceful, meticulously written play with rich characters and the craftsmanship to touch the heart without sinking into sentimentality. In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s fine production of “Intimate Apparel” too, its protagonist Esther Mills, owing to direction by Jasmine Bracey and a sensitive performance by Nedra Snipes, defies victimhood even as betrayal and broken dreams threaten her resolve.
“Intimate apparel” is what 35-year-old Esther, a Black woman residing in a lower Manhattan boarding house in 1905, creates on a humble sewing machine for clients like the wealthy and White Mrs. Van Buren (Madeleine Barker). It’s a steady business and Esther takes great pride in her handiwork, but she is lonely and dares to dream of love. When long-distance correspondence with a worker named George Armstrong in Panama begins via letters, hope springs for Esther.
Uneducated, Esther can neither read nor write, so assistance reading and writing her letters back to George comes from Mrs. Van Buren, whose own loneliness begins to show early on and who craves the vicarious romancing, and from Esther’s friend Mayme (Arizsia Staton), a flamboyant prostitute masking her own disillusionment with vivacity.
Also in Esther’s small sphere are Mrs. Dickson (Teri Brown), who operates the boarding house and thinks – is certain that! – she knows better than Esther, when it comes to just about everything. And Mr. Marks (Jonathan Fisher Jr.), the sweet Romanian Jewish man in the neighborhood who sells wonderful and affordable fabrics to Esther. Their scenes together, throughout, are tender and lovely.
As is somewhat predictable, when George Armstrong (Donald Paul) comes to America, meets and quickly marries Esther, he turns out to be not what she was led to dream he’d be in his letters. He is, and there’s no other word to say it better, a cad.
Rife with opportunities to overplay their hands one and all, the North Coast Rep cast never does. Even Staton, in a role that could easily morph into caricature, brings out Mayme’s humanity and the depth of her friendship for Esther in a well turned performance. Her intentionally off-key vocals at the piano speak to Mayme’s sense of fun even in a sadly dissolute life.
In the same way, Fisher’s fabrics seller is understated in its sincerity and goodness. He represents for Esther, as Nottage no doubt intended, a stark and aching contrast to the morally bereft George.
Snipes strikes all the right chords as Esther – vulnerable but not weak; diffident but not naïve; certainly not worldly, but intuitive. In an interview I did with her for the San Diego Union-Tribune, director Bracey told me that Snipes had “a remarkable sense of who Esther is.”
A set for “Intimate Apparel” probably requires no more than a sewing machine, a bed and a scrim, and the North Coast Rep’s is just about that save a proscenium-wide drapery rather than a scrim. In truth, this play could be staged with no set at all – ok, maybe the bed – and sacrifice none of its dramatic effect. Really, all that’s needed are Nottage’s words and a skilled cast to speak them.
“Intimate Apparel” runs through Feb. 4 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Green is all the rage in "The Wiz." Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Consider the production number that opens Act II of “The Wiz”: The setting is an Emerald City night spot, The No Sleep Club, bathed in oscillating green. There, in full throttle, pulsating dance and high-octane vocals, an Ozian ensemble to music by Timothy Graphenreed frolics as if in one of those Vegas hotspots where the price of bottle service alone is strictly for high rollers.
This is not your grandmother’s “Wizard of Oz.”
You can say that this number, “The Emerald City,” has very little to do with the well-known L. Frank Baum story of Dorothy Gale and her pals the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and you’d be right. But “The Wiz,” which opened 50 years ago before moving to Broadway in 1975 and was subtitled “The Super Soul Musical ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’”, was never intended to be a note-by-note retelling of Baum’s tale, or of the beloved 1939 Judy Garland film.
In fact, take out “The Emerald City” completely and “The Wiz,” which is on a national tour now at the Civic Theatre downtown presented by Broadway San Diego, is still a hipper, less sentimental and much funnier iteration of its ancestral sources. That’s not to say I don’t cherish the MGM film – who doesn’t? Try to think of “The Wiz,” if you haven’t seen it or the 1978 movie adaptation with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, as a reimagining of the well-known “Oz” tale. There’s room in our cultural archives for all takes on Baum’s 1900 book. (Well, maybe not James Franco’s silly “Oz the Great and Powerful” prequel film.)
This touring production of “The Wiz,” which was created by William F. Brown (book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics) features additional material by comedian/actress and writer Amber Ruffin, who’s likely ramped up the humor of the show, and it had considerable to begin with. What’s always been notable about “The Wiz” to me is that its songs, so completely different from Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg’s in 1939, possess their own charm and musicality. Small’s version of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” “Ease On Down the Road,” is practically a standard today; the closing “Home” is a lovely ballad; and the personality-defining ditties given the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are fun enough without being at all derivative.
On this tour, Nichelle Lewis is a forthright Dorothy and a performer with a potent voice. She’s the anchor among a rubbery Avery Wilson as the Scarecrow, Phillip Johnson Richardson as the Tin Man (the finest of the supporting actors) and Kyle Ramar Freeman in the can’t-miss costume of the Lion.
Melody A. Betts takes no prisoners – well, actually she does take Dorothy prisoner, but I’m talking performance-wise – as the Wicked Witch of the West, in “The Wiz” called Evillene. As The Wiz, Alan Mingo, Jr. is good fun and a vital force in all the Emerald City production sequences.
It’s great to see Deborah Cox, so memorable on the Civic Theatre stage in 2017 in “The Bodyguard,” playing the most dazzling Glinda you’ll ever see. She gets two numbers – “He’s The Wiz” and “Believe In Yourself” and knocks both out of the park.
The story of “The Wiz” does not depart significantly from traditional “Oz” tellings, but some of the plot developments unfold without much buildup or even logic. Maybe that’s because we all know how it turns out anyway. More or less. It’s the staging of this show that is more noteworthy. The way, for example, that spinning dancers are employed to “portray” the tornado that sweeps Dorothy’s house off the Kansas ground.
Both Hannah Beachler’s prodigious scenic design and Sharen Davis’ wildly colorful yet functional costumes give “The Wiz” its flash and dash, and Jaquel Knight’s choreography has a breathless, contemporary feel to it.
Even with all its energy, “The Wiz” is lengthier than it probably needed to be, but come on – you don’t go from the Kansas plains to Oz and back in 90 tidy minutes.
“The Wiz” runs through Jan. 14 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.