Director Kevin R. Free calls “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” a concert inside a play. It captures a moment in jazz singer Billie Holiday’s life, just a few months before she died in 1959, when she is giving a concert in a south Philadelphia nightclub. There’s a lot of music in the show, and the band on stage is integral to the overall performance.
But don’t mistake “Lady Day” for a jukebox musical. This play, which premiered in Atlanta in 1986 and opened on Broadway in 2014, is much more a portrait of Holiday than a showcase for her songs.
“When people come to see the show they’re expecting to hear the music – and that’s all they expect to hear,” Free said. “They’re going to have a good time because of the music, but they’re also going to see the woman as a woman, and I hope it gives people a greater understanding of what we expect of our entertainers.”
The play, through songs and dialogue, tells the story of Holiday as a singer, an addict and a victim of abuse and shines a light on America’s oppressive society during her short life. Holiday suffered sexual abuse as a child and used music – and later drugs and alcohol – to escape her demons. She died nearly penniless of heart failure at age 44 in a New York hospital.
The play tells the story of her life beyond the music, elevating Holiday for her artistry and explaining how and why she suffered. “The play returns her to her proper post in the world, and in my view, it’s an exorcise of her demons,” Free said.
The actress Tracey Conyer Lee plays Holiday. The Portland Stage production marks her fourth time playing the role. She knew this production would be different than the others when Free, during their first meeting in New York to discuss the Portland production, added a song, “Them There Eyes,” that didn’t appear in other productions. It’s sexually playful and seductive, and Free wanted it in the show to add depth of character.
“It’s a play about a singer,” Lee said. “And like a musical, the songs aid in the storytelling. But it’s not a musical. It’s the story of her life.”
Among the songs in the show are “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.”
Lee grew up with music. Her parents owned a jazz club in Wilmington, Delaware, which wasn’t dissimilar to Emerson’s in Philadelphia where “Lady Day” is set. Her parents sang, and Lee learned to appreciate jazz from a young age. Lee has always admired Holiday’s songs, and getting to know the singer more personally has heightened her appreciation for the woman and her struggles. “I am so glad this play has become a part of my career,” Lee said. “I love this woman in a different way than I ever have before. Her life is so important to me.”
on stage through Oct. 15, Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., $39 to $59. portlandstage.org, 774-0465.
JUST IN TIME for Halloween, the Portland Stage Studio Series features two productions that turn the words of Maine writers into stage shows. The first is “The Haunting Hour,” Oct. 25 to Nov. 4, by Dustin Tucker. Best known for his acting, Tucker takes on producer and director duties, turning the stories of Maine writers into what Tucker calls “an evening of raw, edgy and dangerous storytelling.” Writers who contributed stories include John Cariani, Tess Gerritsen, Chris Holm, Ike Hamill and Callie Kimball. Tucker adapted the stories for the stage.
The actors are Portland Stage Affiliate Artists Sally Wood and Moira Driscoll, and Chris Davis and Sean Ramey. It’s about an 85-minute performance, pegged to Halloween.
He’s known for comedic storytelling, but Tucker has always been drawn to the macabre. “Horror and scary stuff in general has always been my favorite genre, or my favorite thing, which is weird, because it’s not at all what I do. I am usually the funny guy doing comedy or Shakespeare,” he said.
ON NOV. 8, Maine writer Kari Wagner-Peck and director Bess Welden collaborate for “Not Always Happy,” a live storytelling performance featuring funny, touching and subversive stories about raising a child with Down syndrome. An earlier version of the play won the PortFringe Pulitzer Award for excellence in writing earlier this year. The stage show brings to life Wagner-Peck’s book of the same name, also published this year. A mother and blogger, Wagner-Peck will perform this piece with direction from Welden.
Tickets cost $15. For information about the Studio Series, visit portlandstage.org/studio-series.
Portland Ovations brings the musical “Jersey Boys” to Merrill Auditorium for three performances: at 8 p.m. Oct. 6 and 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 7; $48 to $82 through PortTix.
Beginning Friday, Snowlion Rep stages “Anything Helps God Bless,” the story of Portland’s median-strip panhandling culture, at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 517 Forest Ave. The show is up through Oct. 8.
Mad Horse continues its run of the satirical rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” through Oct. 15 at its theater at 24 Mosher St., South Portland.
In Gorham, the University of Southern Maine opens its fall theater season on Friday with the modern horror story “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom.” It’s on stage through Oct. 8 at Russell Hall.