Step into Spinning Tree Theatre’s performance space this month, and you’ll be stepping back almost 60 years to one of the last shows by jazz legend Billie Holiday.
With this production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which starts Aug. 11, you may feel as if she’s really there.
The scene is 1959 Philadelphia, where a troubled Holiday has returned to perform after losing her permit to appear in New York’s cabarets. In addition to singing some of her greatest hits, Holiday tells stories of drug addiction, loss and love she’s faced over the years. Nedra Dixon brings Broadway experience and a locally developed jazz talent to the title role.
The show “is certainly a timeless piece,” said Dixon, a Kansas City native. “You wouldn’t think that a small, intimate show with three people on stage would be compelling enough to hold an audience, but it does, because Billie Holiday is talking about her human experience via her art.”
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Director Andrew Parkhurst, who’s also the managing director and co-founder of Spinning Tree, said he chose the show because it had been years since it had played in the area.
“We thought, ‘There’s never a bad time to do a piece about a classic artist,’ ” he said. “This is an evening to really pay respect to one of the greatest American artists there’s ever been.”
“Lady Day” premiered off-Broadway in 1986. When the Broadway version finally opened in 2014, star Audra McDonald won a record sixth Tony Award for her portrayal, and she reprised it for an HBO special.
Although the play is based on a real person, Parkhurst knew the show had to have its own spirit — not be a replicated, carbon copy of Holiday at her concerts. He called it an “imagined event” that “memorializes her art and struggles.”
To do that, playwright Lanie Robertson took some liberties. During the show, Holiday is onstage for 90 minutes, talking and singing. Actually,“she wasn’t really one for the gift of the gab during her performances,” said Parkhurst. Then again, “Lady Day” is first and foremost a theatrical piece, not a documentary of Holiday’s life.
“She’s an artist, Nedra, who is portraying another artist, Billie Holiday, in another artist’s, Lanie Robertson’s, work,” he said. “It’s an homage.”
Most of Holiday’s hits — including the show’s numbers “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “Crazy He Calls Me” — were performed by big bands back in her heyday. But the only accompaniment on this stage is a pianist and a bass player — both of whom play double duty as characters in the show.
Gary Green plays pianist Jimmy Powers. Trained as a classical pianist, Green said making the transition to jazz for the show was a balancing act between improvisation and adherence to the script.
“Since I’m not an improvisational keyboard player, I had to sort of compose riffs and things. I feel like I’m being real fake, and someone’s going to stand up and say, ‘That’s not jazz,’ ” he laughed. “It’s humbling, to say the least.”
He can’t improvise too much, though. Dixon said she depends on Green to keep her on track.
Dixon brings plenty of her own jazz experience to the show. When she moved back to Kansas City from her career on Broadway, she performed on KCUR’s 12th Street Jump live jazz show for five years. As a “hard-core musical theater baby,” she said the show was an eye-opening experience.
“My goodness, the world that it opened up to me — the wonderful, improvisational, incredibly ingenious world of jazz and jazz players I had experienced right here at home in Kansas City.
“Jazz has very much become a thread in my tapestry on my journey as an artist.”