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March 23, 2023

Philadelphia Theater Company to recreate Billie Holiday's last performance with 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'

Audiences will be seated on stage for performances of Lanie Robertson's musical from April 7-30 in Center City

Performances Musicals
Billie Holiday Play Provided Image/Kory Aversa

Vocalist and composer Laurin Talese will portray Billie Holiday in Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill,' which will run at the Center City theater from April 7 through April 30.

Just a few months before her death in 1959, Billie Holiday took the stage at a sleazy bar in South Philadelphia and performed some of her most memorable hits for a small audience in her hometown. 

That is the story behind "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," the Tony-winning musical by Lanie Robertson that will make its debut at the Philadelphia Theatre Company next month. Cleveland native vocalist and composer Laurin Talese will portray the jazz and swing icon at the Center City theater from April 7-30. 

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The play, which premiered in Atlanta in 1986, recounts Holiday's life and career through the songs that made her famous. It includes more than a dozen musical numbers, including beloved songs like "What a Moonlight Can Do," "Crazy He Calls Me," "Easy Living," "Strange Fruit," "Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" and "God Bless The Child." The songs are woven into the story as a fictionalized Holiday reminisces on her loves and losses. 

The show is based on an actual performance of Holiday's at Emerson's Tavern, a small jazz club that sat near the intersection of 15th and Bainbridge streets in South Philadelphia before its closure in 1960. Just four months after her Philadelphia performance, Holiday died from complications from cirrhosis of the liver. 

Talese will make her theatrical debut as Holiday on April 7 when "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" begins its run at PTC. The performer took part in 6ABC special, "Looking For Lady Day" in 2021, talking about the musician's cultural impact and connections to Philadelphia. Holiday was born in the city in 1915 and lived there briefly before moving to Baltimore.

"I'm excited to honor Billie's human experience and tell her story," Talese said in a release. "I was drawn to this role by the prospect of working in a new artistic medium. I am always open to experiences that would expand and deepen my expression as an artist. My foundation as a vocalist is in the jazz tradition. So I was introduced to Billie Holiday's music very early." 

Billed as an immersive experience, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" will offer audience seats on the stage, which has been outfitted to mimic a small South Philly bar. There will also be special themed cocktails to accompany the show, so guests to feel like they're sitting in on the real performance. 

This show will include the first student matinee performance that PTC has offered since the onset of the pandemic. On Friday, April 14. students from Northeast High School, Lincoln High School, Kensington CAPA, West Philadelphia High School and other city schools will be invited to watch performances at no cost. 

Tickets for "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" start at $25 and are available online. Though the show officially opens during Black Theatre Night on April 6, that event is sold out and was invitation-only. ASL interpreters will be available at select shows, and some performances require audience members to wear masks. 

'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill'

April 6 through April 30, 2023
Showtimes vary | Tickets start at $25
Philadelphia Theatre Company
480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19146