Beck Center for the Art’s production of ‘Lady Day’ tugs at your heart

It’s a chilly March night in 1959 in Philadelphia, PA at the once renowned Emerson Bar and Grill. Jimmy Powers (Ed Ridley), upright piano and Ray Carter (Bradford McGhee), stand-up bass run through a selections of blues and jazz numbers as the last of the packed house files in. The audience is here to witness one of the final performances of the singing legend Billy Holiday. Little does anyone realize that in less than four short months, Billy will have succumbed to cirrhosis brought on by a lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse.

Tonight, nothing like that is on anyone’s mind as Lady Day (Nicole Sumlin*) takes the stage in a shimmering white silk gown accented with diamond earrings, necklace and bracelets. She’s a little shaky at first, but soon the magic that is her music takes over in a mesmerizing performance that has the audience sitting stock still through each and every note. This is the basis of the Beck Center production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill directed by Scott Spence.

*Member of Actors Equity Association

Between songs Billy tells stories from her growing up in Baltimore, Maryland to her early career where she was noticed by John Hammond at a Harlem nightclub in New York City and soon signed onto a recording contract with Brunswick that led to her concerts at Carnegie Hall. She talks about the men in her life, mostly who took advantage of her wealth and fame and abused her. She also talks matter of factly about her drinking and drug problem (all the while sipping on a number of whiskeys on the rocks).

Her repertoire consists of fifteen of her greatest hits including: “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” among others.

A tremendous amount of work by Cameron Michalak has gone into lending an air of authenticity to the show. The entrance to the Studio Theater sports an Emerson Bar and Grill awning. There are four tables laid out in front of the stage cabaret style in which a lucky few audience members can sit up close and personal. There is a bar stage left where Emerson’s owner Em (Leonard Goff) sends a steady stream of drinks to the singer.

As for the cast, Ed Ridley and Bradford McGhee have a telepathic connection to Nicole Sumlin as they work their way through some of the most difficult jazz arrangements with effortless style. Having spent months channeling the speaking and singing energy of Lady Day, Nicole has nailed the part down. There is even an original Shure 55SH microphone on a rather decrepit stand as one would find in such an establishment. Off in the stage left corner a blinking light (such as from a lighted sign) pulses on and off during the performance. The show is directed by Scott Spence.

Due to the adult content and language of this show it is suited for mature audiences only. Leave the kids at home for this one.

The Beck Center production of Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill is a chance to see a falling star as it plummets to earth and is suddenly extinguished. It is a morality play of an immense talent whose life was cut short due to her self destructive behavior. A mixture of sad and delight it is an example of intimate theater at its best.

The Beck Center for the Arts production of Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill will be on stage in the Studio theater through April 14, 2019. Tickets may be purchased online by going to or by phone by calling (216) 521-2540.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.