LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. It takes guts for off-Loop actor Nambi E. Kelley to take on this play about Billie Holiday so soon after Eartha Kitt's incandescent performance of the same work last spring; at least give Kelley and director Phillip Edward VanLear credit for tackling the challenge. Playwright Lanie Robertson's near soliloquy, set in a seedy Philadelphia nightclub a few months before Holiday's 1959 death, takes the form of a concert the burned-out, strung out Holiday interrupts with woozy, sometimes humorous, often bitter reminiscences of her struggles with poverty, racism, heroin, and loving the wrong men. Kelley, a solid actor but obviously too young for the role, evokes Holiday's distinctive, tune-bending vocal style but tends to rush her speeches, missing the stream-of-consciousness effect needed to make the scattershot anecdotes accumulate into a credible and moving portrait.
VanLear's staging, which seats the audience onstage cabaret-style as well as in the auditorium, marks a laudable effort to turn Fleetwood-Jourdain, which is run by the Evanston park district, from a community theater into a professional one. But he needs to build more previews into his schedule; I suspect Kelley will grow into her role by the end of the short run. Even with its shortcomings, the play's fascinating stories and terrific songs (including the classics "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child") make it a worthy evening for those who missed Kitt's spellbinding rendition or the Wisdom Bridge production several seasons back.