New Theatre Calgary show explores life and times of Billie Holiday

The Calgary theater turned into a jazz club on Friday night.

Not just any jazz club, but Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a 1959 jazz club in the heart of Philadelphia, the city’s least favorite Billie Holiday.

This is the setting Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill, The Calgary Theater is a drama with music, directed by Ray Hogg, that explores the legendary life of Billie Holiday.

Holiday (Chakura Dixon) arrives on stage, pianist Jimmy Powers (Yannick Allwood) introduces her, and from the moment she landed on the spot, there’s nothing left to take your eyes or ears off of her.

why do you want? Holiday Life was the story of jazz coming of age in America, and all the racial complexities involved, in a country divided and separated, as at war with its people as it was with global villains.

The holiday grew up musically alongside people like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Lester Young, the sax man who dubbed her the Lady of the Day, whose soul haunts the stories she tells over the course of 90 minutes of runtime. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

The play’s unconventional structure has the feel of a jazz tone - it blends storytelling with Holiday’s wonderful songbook highlighted by classic tunes such as “Nobody Works In Case of What I Do”, “What Little Moonlight Can Do”, and “God Bless a Child” and “Stringfruit,” a haunting song laden with lynching images that rocked the country when Holiday recorded it in 1939 on Commodore Records, after Columbia refused to release a song about lynching.

what makes Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (Written by Lanny Robertson) It’s hard sometimes at the obvious toll that a black woman was vacationing by the time she got to 1959, the year she died at the age of 44.

Yannick Allwood and Shakura Dixon at Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill at the Calgary Theater

While her musical life was extraordinary, her childhood on the streets of Baltimore and then Harlem was brutal and unflattering. There was a period of working as a prostitute, a bout with heroin that landed her in prison for a year and a felony on her record, and a general sense that she was better at picking songs than husbands and lovers.

Dixon captures feel and sound in a way that seems authentic to the time and the artist. Crafting a holiday isn’t like everyone else’s, and it can break your heart in one song, and Dixon captures that feeling even if she seems too young to play a legend in the end.

Whether she trades in bourbon mugs, cigarettes, or stories, she also has good chemistry with Jamie, a pianist and potential future husband, who can’t quite give up the feeling that Lady Day is getting into trouble, and that it’s his job to make her party that night in One piece.

There’s also a brief but hopeful appearance by a Chihuahua named Pepi, who provides Lady Day with the companionship and unrequited love that feels like her legendary life is lacking in humans.

There’s no escaping the racism that the holiday has been forced to endure, which is especially vital when Dixon tells a story about going on a tour to the Far South with Artie Shaw in 1938, though there is some humor that can be gleaned from the horror stories she and Dixon provided. Punch line as well as plays the melody.

A piano by Brian Dudkiewicz is dominated by a dangling globe, spiral staircase and, in the background, a copy of a painting by Aaron Douglas, called From slavery through reconstruction - which probably doesn’t apply to what could be found at the Philly Jazz Club in 1959, but it does lend a bit of visual emphasis to lady’s day Songbook.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill It doesn’t exactly send you to the parking lot to tap your toes. She had a Broadway track in 2014, but her uneasy musical soul lies a little further east - at 52second abbreviation Street, where jazz clubs dominated that part of midtown Manhattan and that part of northern Harlem, at a time when jazz ruled American music, and its queen was Lady Day.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill At the Calgary Theater until October 3.