"I did not want to mimic Billie Holiday," said Andre Ernotte, whose staging of Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" opens tonight at the Hollywood Playhouse.
"When I was first approached about this, I told them that voyeuristic melodrama doesn't turn me on, that if I did it they'd have to deglamorize Billie: show the dark, sad side. So it's not so much a nightclub act as a theater play with music." Set in a Philadelphia jazz bar some months before the singer's death, the piece utilizes mannequins, which the actress plays with on stage: "At times she's a comedian, then a singer, then there's biographical stuff."
S. Epatha Merkerson plays Lady Day, a role she took over in New York from original star Lonette McKee. "Lonette is basically a singer," Ernotte said, "but Epatha brings a whole other element as an actress--and a tremendous amount of humor." Which doesn't obscure the very real aspect of drug dependency--"We're not preachy about that, but it's dealt with, without being graphic. And you see it on stage: it affects her singing, her movements.
"Of course, it's sad to watch her destruction," he added, "but enriching, too. (Holiday) aficionados enjoy it from that viewpoint; we've also gotten a lot of kids who didn't know who she was and get to meet this interesting woman--almost a chronicler of her time. It's also about the addictions we human beings have to so many things, including love. Drugs are just part of Billie's dependency. But singing is the catharsis, her salvation."
For music and humor of a very different kind, welcome "Jailbirds on Broadway" (just opened at the Tiffany), written by Cheri Eichen, Bill Steinkellner and Jeff Rizzo, and directed by Glenn Casale.
"It came out of a (comedy-improv) show Bill and I did called 'Instaplay,' " said Eichen (who, with husband Steinkellner, is a staff writer on "Cheers"). "Every night we'd get titles from the audience, they'd vote on a favorite and we'd improvise a musical comedy. One night we got 'Jailbirds on Broadway'--and we just loved the title. So we kept mulling it over. Then one morning I woke up with the image of these women (inmates) singing joyfully about a new con being thrown in.
"We've always loved prison movies, all that mythology and drama. And we thought it'd be fun to juxtapose those hard women with the vibrancy of traditional musical comedy. In the first act, (Penny and Turtle) start out in prison. Then they break out through a secret tunnel and find themselves in 42nd Street (subway) station. They've been advised to hide in plain sight--and the most obvious place is a Broadway show. So they try out and get cast in this show . . . which is about prison.
"It's a blast," Eichen said. "There are men playing women, Christmas, riots, tap dancing. We took as many theatrical conventions as we could--you'll see shadows of 'Chorus Line,' '42nd Street,' 'Pajama Game.' Musically, too, it's a pastiche: There's a girl-group number, another is a 'Dreamgirls'-type."
Any similarities to Tom Eyen's "Women Behind Bars"? "The material is the same: women in a cage. And that show was very funny, but more dark-natured. 'Jailbirds' is the musical comedy approach to women's prisons."
CRITICAL CROSS FIRE: Vladimir Gubaryev's "Sarcophagus," which centers on a group of victims of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, opened last month at the Los Angeles Theatre Center as part of the Los Angeles Festival.
Said the Times' Sylvie Drake: "The message is a dire, desperate warning. It is also didactic and dry. Gubaryev, who is Pravda's eminent science editor, is only too painfully aware of the magnitude of this nuclear disaster: its significance, ramifications, consequences. Good reporter that he is, he delivers this knowledge in a language that is earnest, factual, unvarnished, but disappointingly arid."
From Richard Stayton in the Herald-Examiner: " 'Sarcophagus' (is) alive with vivid, unforgettable human beings in a hypnotic battle against mankind's ancient enemy--extinction. Above all, at LATC, we experience an emotional chain reaction triggered by comedy, tenderness, suffering, rage, death, desperation and self-sacrifice. . . . Miss it at your peril."
Susan Spillman, in USA Today, noted that "Though the direction and acting are commendable given the dehumanizing, limited depth of these roles, some of the victims' scenes are nearly as sterile as their cubicles. . . . Though watching grotesquely burned radiation victims spew scientific explanations for three hours doesn't make a joyful evening, it will surely leave audiences thinking."
From Polly Warfield in Drama-Logue: " 'Sarcophagus' is heavy stuff and bitter medicine, maybe good for what ails us. It's a message play and Gubaryev states his message clearly: The atomic devil has jumped out at us. Entrenched bureaucracies, theirs and ours, are blundering toward Armageddon. If we are to survive, we must become better and wiser."
Sandra Kreiswirth, in the Daily Breeze, found that "At three hours, too long by at least an hour, this is a evening that disseminates lots of information, a presentation that is part play, part lecture. . . . In 'Sarcophagus,' no edges are rounded, no blows softened."
John C. Mahoney, in the Downtown News, applauded Gregory Wagrowski's performance as "brilliant," yet concluded that " 'Sarcophagus' is a significant international event and an admirable production of a disappointing play. That does not diminish the importance of the issues it explores. There are 400 nuclear power stations throughout the world and 50,000 nuclear warheads."