Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL at Mercury Theater Chicago

Review: LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL at Mercury Theater Chicago

To say Alexis J. Roston’s performance as Billie Holiday in LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL is a masterclass in acting and singing is no exaggeration. Roston gives the kind of lived-in, seamless performance that only comes from knowing the material intimately well, and indeed, it’s a role she’s played many times before. For Mercury Theater Chicago’s current production, she’s now co-directing with Artistic Director Christopher Chase Carter. It’s clear that Roston put a lot of work into making this performance happen, but the result is true stage magic. Roston is no doubt putting her all into her portrayal of Billie Holiday, but she makes it all seem effortless. 

Written by Lanie Robertson, LADY DAY transports audiences back to a night in 1959 at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philadelphia, where Billie Holiday gave one of her final performances. On paper, the role is evidently a challenge: The actor who portrays Billie must capture the singer’s iconic vocals but also become more unraveled as the show progresses — as Billie’s habit of imbibing takes a toll. It’s a testament to Roston that she nails that duality so effortlessly: Her vocals are sublime the entire time, but she also reveals more and more of Billie’s frustration, loneliness, and desperation as the show goes on. She is absolutely captivating as she performs hit after hit from Billie, and she nails every single story that the character tells as well. Her take on the iconic “Strange Fruit” is particularly chilling; Roston’s acting in that number alone is a microcosm of the magnificent work she’s doing. 

The production is well-suited to Mercury Theater’s cabaret space, as the intimate space mirrors the intimate venue for Billie’s performance. Roston is joined onstage by Jeff Harris on bass, Harold Morrison on drums, and Nygel D. Robinson, who conducts, music directs, and plays the role of Billie’s accompanist, Jimmy. Robinson has an affable presence on stage. I’d also be remiss not to mention the brief appearance of Pepe, Billie’s dog, who is played by a charming but bewildered pup. 

Roston captivates throughout the show. Her vocals are incredible, beautifully capturing Billie’s tone and cadence. She also takes a few turns through the audience; while I liked the idea of connecting with the crowd, Roston more so meanders through the space rather than directly engaging. That was the one directorial choice that didn’t seem entirely justified. 

Roston is magnetic enough that it all evens out. Decked out in a classic white gown designed by Samantha C. Jones and with an elegant wig from Kelley Jordan, Roston oozes star presence. Roston knows how to ride the fine line of emphasizing Billie’s formidable star power, while also portraying the vulnerable, tired woman underneath. 

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL plays Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport Avenue, through March 12, 2023. Visit

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

Originally published on


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