Stage Names: Portland Stage’s “Lady Day” a jazz standard for the heart

Tracey Conyer Lee as Billie Holiday in Portland Stage’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” by Lanie Robertson and directed by Kevin R. Free. (click to enlarge, Photo by Aaron Flacke)

PORTLAND – Jazz standards are like that.

Prior to the opening of Portland Stage’s opening show of the 2017 season, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” by Lanie Robertson, artistic and executive director Anita Stewart came to the top of the stairs house left, all the way back against the wall in Row M, and greeted me.

The play, for which Stewart designed one of her inimitable sets as yet another visual feast, is a tribute to the late Billie Holiday.

As I surveyed the transformation of the forward stage area of Portland Stage’s auditorium into a jazz club – another nice piece of Stewart’s imagination – with 4-5 cocktail tables and chairs added where the stage apron normally would crowd, I told her I had been looking forward to this play all summer because it would be my second time seeing it, albeit at a different venue with a different cast.

This seemed most appropriate to “Lady Day,” given that my experience of coming back to a different performance was sort of like a jazz standard: same song, but the art makes it much different every time out.

The show, directed by Kevin R. Free, finds Holiday (Tracy Conyer Lee) and her piano player/manager/guardian Jimmy Powers (Gary Mitchell, Jr.) and a bass player, (Ross Gallagher) at the iconic Philly jazz club Emerson’s, just four months before her death in 1959 at age 44, of cirrhosis of the liver.

Reportedly, on that actual night, there were only 7 patrons present to hear the brilliant yet dying Holiday push through her own struggles with addiction and illness to let the show go on.

Lee’s acting and singing were sublime. Those who have heard Holiday’s distinctive gravel-like delivery will acknowledge Lee’s powerful take, not just in speech but in song – a most difficult endeavor.

Lee took an ailing and intoxicated Holiday and made the legendary chanteuse her own. Her crooning found both our hopes and fears exposed in the shadows of the auditorium.

Lee also thrust Holiday into our collective conscience as she mixed the singer’s passion in performing while pouring out the legend’s grief over horrendous treatment in the Jim Crow era – an absolute must for anyone taking on this role.

Mitchell held up his end with verve and wisdom, adeptly injecting calm and maturity as he showed us, with great empathy, Powers’ yearning to shield Holiday from implosion.

Mitchell’s piano playing changed tempos, suggested numbers, and came alive on stage as we all looked to him for clarity where there was little, for calm in the maelstrom.

Gallagher was just a flat-out star on bass. Anyone who knows jazz will hone in on his playing and know what a master Portland Stage cast as the Bassist.

Ross Gallagher as the Bassist and Gary Mitchell, Jr. as Jimmy Powers in Portland Stage’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” by Lanie Robertson and directed by Kevin R. Free. (click to enlarge, Photo by Aaron Flacke)

The show ran a crisp 90 minutes with no intermission, and at its end, the standing ovation explosive. Pumping out number after number for an hour and a half is no easy feat, for singer, piano player or bassist, but Lee, Mitchell and Gallagher did themselves, and history, proud.

Portland Stage’s design team outpaced itself, if such a thing is possible. Stewart’s set took a different yet powerfully intimate feel of Emerson’s from the moment one walks into the … club. Sound by Devin Bruton, and lighting by Bryon Winn were done to perfection and helped further create the late-night feel, even at a 4 p.m. matinee.

Palm Beach Dramaworks Costume Department flawlessly produced the look of the period, whose original design was by Leslye Menshouse. Finally,  stage manager Myles C. Hatch ran a tight show start to finish.

I would be totally remiss if I don’t give a nod to Kenney M. Green – who I had the pleasure to catch as Jimmy Powers at Dorset Theatre Festival –  for his musical arrangement, no small feat in this show.

What a performance! I’ve reviewed many plays at Portland Stage the last few years and while difficult to point out one which makes theatre truly great, “Lady Day” has to be in the top few I’ve ever seen.

Holiday’s history itself is the stuff of tragedy, but also of inspiration and of the American heart. Jazz is like that too, in its freedom, its verve, and its heartbeat, it has all the makings of being uniquely, indisputably, American.

Ross Gallagher as the Bassist, Tracy Conyer Lee as Billie Holiday, and Gary Mitchell, Jr. as Jimmy Powers in Portland Stage’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” by Lanie Robertson and directed by Kevin R. Free. (click to enlarge, Photo by Aaron Flacke)

Yes, this play is about a legend. And as director Free noted, it is also about the music, and about being able to escape into it.

And while there are many historical and social takeaways, and tie-ins that come right back to the human struggle for acceptance and equality that goes on to this day, the crux of what you will see cuts right to the heart in an intimate, and deeply personal way.

Because as Americans, especially in these divisive times, we all have a little bit of the lonely jazz player in us: grinding away in full view when we are far from our best, perhaps to a house with only 7 patrons, but hopefully, professionals to the end.

This brought to mind another tragic jazz legend, Chet Baker, who struggled with his own own demons ’til his untimely death in 1988 at age 58, but still playing that sweet trumpet to the very end.

If you do nothing else this next week, and haven’t already made your way to “Lady Day,” then take a few hours and go see and enjoy this show.

And if you don’t jump from your seat at the end, then please check your pulse – because the heartbeat of a jazz standard is out there in “Lady Day,” pumping out one last long note, one final lost stare into the dark of an audience, searching to find the man in Row M, head bowed and eyes close in reverence.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” runs through October 15 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit:

Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).

Stage Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.