Ion Theatre’s transformation of its adjacent URBN CENTR 4THE ARTS into a faded South Philly bar in the late ‘50s provides an intimate candlelit setting for the gifted Cashae Monya’s performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The 80-minute production isn’t technically a one-person show – musical director Brandon Sherman, as keyboardist Jimmy Powers, accompanies Monya from the shadows. But you’ll never take your eyes off Monya, who may not have the singing voice of Lady Day (come on, who does?) yet does justice to signature Holiday songs including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain.” More impressive, Monya’s portrayal of a sick -- and sick at heart -- Holiday performing during the last year of her life is periodically sweet and sad.
The focus of Lanie Robertson’s 2014 play, which starred Audra McDonald on Broadway, is not on Holiday’s distinctive vocalizing but rather on her aching, sometimes rambling reminiscences about a life rent by racism, substance abuse and even brief imprisonment. Monya’s dramatization is chilling.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat