Reviewed by George Basler

Jazz singer Billie Holiday was a performer whose immense talent tragically went hand in hand with an immense capacity for self-destruction. Both aspects are on display in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened this past weekend (March 1-3) and will run through March 10 at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott.

Produced by BLAST (Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier) and directed by BLAST Artistic Director Rob Egan, the play is essentially a monologue in which Holiday recounts key moments in her troubled life while performing her signature songs. The performance takes place in a small Philadelphia nightclub four months before her death at age 44.

The play by Lanie Robertson requires a tour de force effort by the actress playing Holiday, and the BLAST production supplies one in the form of Ayana Del Valle, a local jazz singer and vocal coach, who gives a strikingly effective performance as the ravaged singer.

Not only does Del Valle superbly capture Holiday’s vocal style, which relied on emotion, distinctive jazz timing and signature phrasing, she also gives a performance of deep emotional rawness.

When the play opens, Holiday’s life has already unraveled because of heroin and alcohol addiction. While some of her songs are upbeat (“What a Little Moonlight Can Do”), others painfully reflect the dark moments of the singer’s life, which had been scarred by three failed marriages, a score of bad decisions and racism.

Del Valle’s performance shows the strength of will and toughness that drove Holiday. For example, one graphic monologue, which is both humorous and scatological, recounts the singer’s revenge on white women racists who wouldn’t let her use a bathroom when she was touring with Artie Shaw’s big band.

But Del Valle’s performance also skillfully reveals Holiday’s deep bitterness and emotional fragility as the singer belts down drink after drink and descends into a heroin-induced haze. Her stumbling mannerisms as Holiday becomes increasingly unglued are disturbing and heartbreaking.

Credit also goes to Matthew Welsh, who, as Holiday’s piano accompanist, sympathetically tries to keep Holiday on track as the evening progresses, The role gives Welsh the chance to perform a solo piece when an emotionally overwrought Holiday leaves the stage for a time. It’s a notable moment in the show.

By no means is Lady Day a comprehensive account of Holiday’s life. Instead, Robertson presents a series of jumbled anecdotes and leaves it up to audience members to fill in the blanks. This means some prior knowledge of Holiday’s life is helpful.

Also, BLAST production’s approach requires Del Valle to avoid eye contact and muffle her speech at certain points. This means some lines get lost.

This quibble aside, the play’s emotional power can’t be denied. One strength is Robertson’s clear-eyed view of Holiday, which keeps Lady Day from veering into a pity party for a “poor victim.” While Holiday was certainly victimized, she also sabotaged her life with toxic choices and personal shortcomings.

This is clearly seen in the play’s penultimate song, “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” which is both an emblem of defiance and a picture of deep soul weariness.

Del Valle sings this number brilliantly. This is also the case with her renditions of other signature Holiday songs scattered throughout the play. At the end of the play, Del Valle silently mouths a song while the singer slowly fades into the shadows. It’s a commanding moment that leaves an indelible impression.

Set designer Sonny DeWitt and lighting designer Gabrielle Button have done yeoman’s work creating the atmosphere of a smoky nightclub in the wee hours of the evening. And the white gown and long white gloves worn by Del Valle are eye-catching.

 The BLAST production is a fine one that will please both theater goers and jazz aficionados.

IF YOU GO: BLAST (Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier) will continue is production of  Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill this coming weekend, March 8-10, at the Cider Mill Stage. 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; the Sunday matinee is at 2:30 p.m. Tickets at $30 (including fees) may be purchased by visiting or by calling the box office at 607-321-9630.