Step Back to 1959: See Broadway Sensation ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’

Tyler Dobrowsky and Taibi MagarTyler Dobrowsky and Taibi Magar, photo by Mark Garvin

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Audiences are invited to step back in time to a seedy Philadelphia bar in 1959 for the final performance of jazz icon Billie Holiday. Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) announced that it is proud to produce Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, written by Lanie Robertson with musical arrangements by Danny Holgate.

This Tony Award-winning Broadway and television play with music will be directed by PTC Resident Artist Jeffrey L. Page, fresh from his triumphant revival of 1776 on Broadway, for which he served as co-director and choreographer. Local jazz starlet Laurin Talese will make her theatrical debut on the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, playing the role of the late, legendary chanteuse. Audiences will experience every word and note of this intimate portrait of the celebrated Lady Day up close and personal,  seated just a few short steps from the music and the history.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to close out our season with this fantastic musical event about the life and music of the extraordinary Billie Holiday,” says PTC Co-Artistic Director Tyler Dobrowsky. “And with Jeffrey Page at the helm, fresh off his Broadway debut, and the luminous Laurin Talese playing Lady Day, this will be a production you won’t want to miss. Join us for a page right out of Philadelphia history.”

Centering one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill recounts the life of Billie Holiday through the songs that made her famous. The year is 1959. The place is a seedy bar in Philadelphia. The audience is about to witness one of Billie Holiday’s last performances, given four months before her death. More than a dozen musical numbers, including “What a Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Easy Living,” “Strange Fruit,” “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” and “God Bless the Child,” are interlaced with salty, often humorous reminiscences to project a riveting portrait of the lady and her music. With her expressive voice and emotional songs, the jazz great shares her loves and her losses in a staggering showcase of her talent that, unbeknownst to the audience, will be one of the last of her lifetime. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, written by acclaimed playwright Lanie Robertson, is based on an actual performance of Holiday’s at a South Philadelphia bar in March 1959.

“The plot of Lady Day weaves a seamless story of substance abuse, race, gender, and identity politics through the complexity of living with and overcoming trauma,” says Page. “The seeking of the inflicted to heal the inflictor is a culture that took an enormous toll on Billie Holiday. She sought and found freedom and eternal salvation in music. While this bar—where Billie Holiday appeared in the 1950s—has been long closed, the building still stands on the corner of 50th and Bainbridge. Four months after the action of the play, Billie Holliday would die of cirrhosis and heart failure in a Harlem hospital.”

Playing the music icon Billie Holiday is Laurin Talese, a Philadelphia local known for her buttery voice, charisma, and musical prowess. She recently appeared in a 6ABC special, “Looking For Lady Day,” speaking about the legacy of Billie Holiday and her relationship with the city of Philadelphia. Talese performs for international audiences and leads educational workshops to bring jazz to new populations. In 2021, Talese made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut performing repertoire, including her original composition, “This Love” conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Laurin Talese enjoys serving as Vice President of the Recording Academy’s Philadelphia Chapter, on the boards of Jazz Philadelphia, and the University of the Arts’ Alumni Council. In 2022, Laurin premiered her newest work “Museum Of Living Stories” commissioned by Chamber Music America.⁣⁣ She will be making her theatrical debut as the tortured and talented titular role in Lady Day.

“I am excited to honor Billie’s human experience and tell her story,” said Talese. “I was drawn to this role by the prospects of working in a new artistic medium. I am always open to experiences that would expand and deepen my expression as an artist. My foundation as a vocalist is in the jazz tradition. So I was introduced to Billie Holiday’s music very early. I read one of her biographies in the sixth or seventh grade and was enthralled by her story even then. I fell in love with her innate sense of rhythm and the way she could embody a lyric.”

Composer and producer Will Brock is the music director for this production, and will accompany Talese onstage as Billie Holiday’s pianist Jimmy Powers. No stranger to jazz performance, Brock himself has performed around the world with Marion Meadows, Gerald Veasley, and other Jazz icons. His music has been featured on national and international TV and radio ads, and TV shows like Emeril Live, Army Wives, The Guiding Light, Studio Jams, and others. Feature films include “Cover,” the 2008 thriller directed by Bill Dukes.

“I’m thrilled to work with Laurin Talese, a local giant within the music and jazz scene of Philadelphia, as she steps into the role of Lady Day,” said Page. “Laurin makes the topics of this play relevant for 2023 and finds magnificent intersections and parallels with Lady Day.”

All seating for this performance will be on the stage – transformed into Emerson’s Bar & Grill, complete with a working bar from which patrons can order cocktails to add to the experience. Lady Day will run from April 6th to 30th, with opening night on Wednesday, April 12th at 7:00 pm. Seating is divided into three general admission zones, with tickets on sale now for $25 and up. All shows are performed at PTC’s home at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146. Tickets are available at www.philatheatreco.org, by calling 215-985-0420, or by visiting the Box Office.

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