DORSET — Prior to the opening of Dorset Theatre Festival's final show of the 2016 season, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," by Lanie Robertson, I sauntered over to say hello to Dorset's artistic and executive direct, Dina Janis. The play, which Janis directs, is a tribute to the late Billie Holiday.
As I surveyed the transformation of Dorset Playhouse's auditorium into a jazz club - with the four front rows of seats replaced by tables and chairs with patrons already in them sipping wine - I told Janis I had prepared for this assignment all week by playing jazz standards non-stop.
Janis and I then started naming our favorite artists: Holiday, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and the list went on until we both looked at each other and said almost in the same breath: "Chet Baker."
Mentioning Baker — the King of Cool himself a tragic figure like Holiday — is pretty much all you need to know about Dorset's conviction to make "Lady Day" a true jazz experience, and just as much about telling Holiday's story through music as well as dialogue.
The show finds Holiday (Marinda Anderson) and her piano player Jimmy Powers (Kenney Greene) at the iconic Philly jazz club Emerson's, just four months before her death in 1959 at age 44, of cirrhosis of the liver.
Anderson, who wowed Dorset crowds last season in "Intimate Apparel," brought her A-game in both acting and singing. Those who have heard Holiday's distinctive raspy delivery will be eerily spooked yet most pleased by Anderson's uncanny rendition, not just in speech but in song.
Anderson was able to roundly convince us of how an ailing and intoxicated Holiday would actually be, and it was nothing short of masterful. She swooned, and crooned, and belted her songs into our hearts.
Importantly, Anderson 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.
Kenney M. Greene was the perfect complement to all this. His smoothly deft interjections had wisdom, calm and maturity as he conveyed Powers' deep desire to protect Holiday from herself.
Greene's piano playing was matchless as he changed tempos, suggested numbers, played with true soul, and came alive on stage as a multitalented entertainer who we quickly relied on, just as ancient audiences looked to the Greek chorus for wisdom and guidance - bravo, Sir!
The show ran a crisp 90 minutes with no intermission, and the standing ovation at the end was immediate, powerful, and richly deserved. Fifteen numbers is no easy feat, for singer or piano player, but Anderson and Green did their namesakes proud.
Dorset's design team outpaced itself, if such a thing is possible. Alexander Woodward set grasped the feel of Emerson's from the moment one walks into the club. Sound by Jane Shaw, and lighting by Michael Giannitti were done to perfection and helped further create the evening's feel.
Costume designer Tracy Christensen flawlessly fashioned the look of the period, and stage manager Kelly Borgia ran a tight show start to finish.
What a performance! I've been coming to Dorset as a critic for years and while difficult to single out any one exhibit of what makes theatre truly great, "Lady Day" comes about as close as humanly possible.
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.
This play was about a legend. But it was also about the music, and the atmosphere was flawless. If you do nothing else this summer, I implore to go see this show. And if you don't jump from your seat at the end, then please check your own pulse – it may need a bit more Billie Holiday – or even Chet Baker - than you know.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," by Lanie Robertson, runs through Sep. 3 at
Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd, Dorset. Tickets: 802-867-2223 or visit: dorsettheatrefestival.org.
~ Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA)