With its low lighting, cocktail tables, scarlet-draped piano, and old-timey microphone, the scene at Freeport Factory Stage is set as a small club readied for an intimate night of jazz. And in this show, "intimate" will wind up meaning more than just close proximity to the chanteuse: It's 1959, and in one of the last shows of her life, the legendary Billie Holiday is about to bring us not just her inimitable phrasing, but also arrestingly personal details of her both so radiant and so devastating life. Julie George-Carlson directs Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, which stars Mardra Thomas as the singer, about four months away from her death.
The years have wreaked a ton of troubles on her, and the pathos of her state is apparent almost immediately here in this seedy Philadelphia club. After only a few songs and sips of brown liquor, she starts to slur a little, and the fedora brim of her pianist (Flash Allen) starts to slip down, as if he'd rather be somewhere else. "He doesn't want to be seen with no jailbird," she jokes, but the unease is palpable. She'll go on to reveal, in between increasingly and alcoholically tearful songs, the skinny about her legal troubles, her contract (she's required to play certain old favorites, like "God Bless the Child") and why she can't sing in New York. She also tells stories of her musical career and friendships, her heroin-addict first husband, her mother ("The Duchess"), and her hard youth, which included — by the time she was 14 — both rape and prostitution.
Freeport Factory Stage's small theater, simple set, and handily proximate in-house bar are all perfectly suited to this show: Not only are we indeed up close and personal with Lady, but we can also see her wander over to where the alcohol lives, or shout out something raucous to the bartender. As her stoic accompanist, Allen is a talented workhorse on the keys; he seems sometimes to play with a certain gruffness, as if in defense against the breakdown he knows is coming. But his fingers do slip into a reverent tenderness, during her later and slower numbers, as her deep damage becomes less of a professional responsibility and embarrassment to him, and more of a genuine sadness.
Thomas, a well-traveled jazz vocalist as well as an Equity actor, does a fine job balancing the heartbreaking weakening of tone and foreshortening of range, which came in Holiday's later years, with the enduring emotional candor of her timbre and interpretations. (I'd only ask a little more volume on her body mic, at least during the songs.) In this show, the arrangements and delivery of her classics serve to punctuate and deepen the content of her conversation: "Strange Fruit" is even more harrowing coming amid her pointed recollections of racial discrimination in hotels and from cops; the blithe love song "Easy Living" becomes a dirge in acknowledging a life that's been far from easy, as well as a first love who lives on in her body's own crippling addiction to heroin.