Dorset Theatre Festival's season closes with Billie Holiday tribute

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DORSET, VT >> Smooth notes emanating from the corner piano. The mellifluous voice of a legendary chanteuse crooning sweet standards. Patrons lounging at their tables, sipping wine. A soothing evening at a nice jazz club.

And it will be, just not in the West Village, but in a little Vermont village, at Dorset Theatre Festival's final production of the season, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," by Lanie Robertson.

The play, directed by Dorset's artistic and executive director Dina Janis, will run through Sept. 3.

Robertson recreated this look at jazz-great Billie Holiday: The year is 1959, and the place a seedy bar in Philadelphia. The audience sees one of Holiday's last performances, four months before her death.

More than a dozen musical numbers are intertwined with salty, often humorous, musings, revealing a portrait of Holiday and her music. For Janis, the story is personal.

"I grew up on the road with two jazz musician parents, and was fortunate to have known folks like Tony Bennett and Miles Davis," Janis said. "They truly influenced who I've become as an artist and person. Billie Holiday is one of my heroes. Her life was, in many ways, a truly tragic American story."

Holiday paid a heavy price, Janis continued, for the kind of racism that was endemic in her time, but she never stopped fighting for social justice. Yet Janis noted that Holiday's struggles didn't define her as much as her music did.

"Billie Holiday was a stunning singer whose phrasing and style transformed the jazz world, and musicians adored her," Janis said. "She was also one of jazz's most important composers. This play allows us a penetrating look into her life as we listen to the profound legacy of her artistry — her music itself."

Marinda Anderson will play Holiday. She played the lead at Dorset last summer in the successful "Intimate Apparel."

Janis said she knew about Anderson's acting chops but then learned the actor was a singer and had worked on a play about the great jazz artist, Sarah Vaughan. This made Anderson a good fit for the role.

Kenney Green plays Jimmy Powers, Lady Day's piano player.

"Kenney is a terrific musical director, musician and actor, and he had done this show before and brought with him considerable expertise," Janis said.

Portraying an icon like Billie Holiday can be intimidating and sometimes overwhelming, said Anderson.

"As I progress through the rehearsal process, I'm trying to capture the essence of Billie and her deep need of music," Anderson said. "My goal is for everyone to walk out of the theater remembering her legacy and how she always tried to rise above, despite her circumstances."

Part of capturing that heritage, at least during this production, will be to convert the interior of Dorset Playhouse into a jazz club.

Well, maybe not totally, but a pretty good facsimile of one, according to Dorset box office manager and jack-of-all-trades Taylor Crichton.

Crichton said the company will transform the Playhouse into a jazz club, with table seating on the stage and in the house. Crichton added that the auditorium's first four rows (A through D) will be removed and six tables will be put in their place. Up to six people can sit at each table for a maximum of 36 seats.

"Seating is general admission in this section, but we will reserve tables for larger parties who ask," Crichton said. "Anyone is welcome to sit there. Regular ticket pricing applies in this section. Normal discounts, including student, youth, industry pricing, and door rush, also apply. We're happy to provide additional information."

Dorset's team of set designer Alexander Woodward, sound designer Jane Shaw, and lighting designer Michael Giannitti will create the night club makeover. Costume designer Tracy Christensen will fashion the look of the period to complement the aura.

And if you want to sip your favorite alcoholic beverage, you'll be able to in the club seating, Janis added.

"Audience members can bring their own alcoholic beverages, or have us pour for them in the café and then bring in drinks for that seating," Janis said. "We can provide glasses, but no service during the show. We may have an actual bartender who can sell, but that hasn't been confirmed. Please check with the box office."

Janis concluded that "Lady Day" is a powerful story, and Holiday's personal history is a slice of Americana no one should miss.

"But, I would have to add, at the end of the day the music itself is the heart of this show, and it is some of the best jazz you'll ever hear," she said.

ON STAGE ...

What: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," by Lanie Robertson

Where: Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vt.

When: Now through Sept. 3

Cost: $40-$60

Information: 802-867-2223, dorsettheatrefestival.org

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist.


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