On MLK Day weekend, MusicalFare and Theatre of Youth each began runs of entertaining shows about beloved Black icons.

THE BASICS:  LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL, a musical by Lanie Robertson, directed by Thembi Duncan, with music direction by George Caldwell, starring Alex McArthur, runs through January 29, Fridays – Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00, presented by MusicalFare Theatre on the Premier Cabaret Stage, located on the Daemen University campus, 4380 Main Street, Amherst, NY 14226 (716) 839-8540  

Runtime: An hour and a half without intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  This is the inaugural production in MusicalFare’s “Cabaret Musicals Series” and is a freely imagined composite of what might have been Billie Holiday’s final performances.  Taking place in the late 1950s in Philadelphia only four months before Holiday’s untimely death at the age of 44, LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL gives us a look at the (in real life very private) woman behind the music.  The show stars JazzBuffalo’s Female Vocalist of the Year, Alex McArthur.  As Billie Holiday, shehe sings, and tells stories, but becomes increasingly intoxicated and incoherent while her pianist urges her to take a break.  Alex McArthur is backed up by Grammy-Award-winning jazz pianist, George Caldwell (who toured with Count Basie and his orchestra) along with guitarist Mike Moser and stand-up bassist Sabu Adeyola.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Everyone has heard at least one Billie Holiday recording and so to take on the role you better be damn good.  Alex McArthur is damn good.  She has the slight “sizzle” with the esses and the ability to smoothly glide from note to note which was Billie Holiday’s signature.  And when I say “glide” I am not talking about that self-indulgent melismatic nonsense we hear these days during pre-game National Anthems.  I’m talking about the glissando and rubato of real blues and jazz singers.  Alex McArthur is a treasure.  She is the real deal and is paired up with another treasure, pianist George Caldwell, a living link to the greats of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  Caldwell has assembled two able-bodied sidemen, Mike Moser playing a jazz standard arch-top Gibson guitar and Sabu Adeyola with his old stand-up bass that looks as if it’s played a few gigs over the years.  

Although she stands in front of a retro microphone prop, McArthur is head-mic’d and the mix (Set, Lighting, & Sound Design by Chris Cavanagh) is excellent.  The Drozd sisters, as usual, did a fine job with Hair, Wig, & Makeup and a stunning form-fitting floor-length evening dress.  When McArthur adds the Billie Holiday signature gardenia to her hair (Properties by Kevin Fahey) the look is complete.

I like MusicalFare’s playbill compromise.  They used to tell the audience to download the digital program on their phones and then, of course, to turn those phones off.  You can still do that or you can see the digital playbill at home by clicking here.

These days, instead of downloading on your phone versus handing out full-color printed playbills (most of which will end up in the landfill) you get a half-sheet affair with all the important stuff, including all the folks involved in the production and the set list, which begins with Buddy Johnson’s “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” and includes two collaborations by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.  – “Don’t Explain” and “God Bless the Child.”  And, of course, the song audiences clamored for, even in the South, “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol.

Sometimes Billie tells stories from the stage, some humorous, some not so much, other times we see her in her dressing room, talking about being arrested, mistreated by producers and lovers, and traveling through the South.  There is, or can be, a dramatic arc of having Billie Holiday slowly succumb to drugs and alcohol on stage until she’s unable to perform.  Here, Director Duncan chose a more subtle approach, perhaps to a fault, because it wasn’t quite clear why, for a bit, Billie leaves the stage.  

If you like to drink, you might consider arriving early, or requesting seats away from the stage, because once the show starts, it seemed to me that re-ordering, especially if you’re close to the stage, could be disruptive to the performers.  But don’t arrive too early, because after sitting and nursing my soda pop for close to two hours, I thought that the seats in the lounge could have used a little more padding.  Your mileage may vary.

Watching LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL was a good way to observe MLK Day, I thought, and so was going over to the Theatre of Youth for a different kind of musical, innocent and whimsical, based on the stories of Ezra Jack Keats, about a Black child named Peter who lives in a multicultural, inner-city neighborhood. 

THE BASICS:  THE SNOWY DAY AND OTHER SHORT STORIES, a musical adapted for the stage by Jerome Hairston, based on works by Ezra Jack Keats, directed by Annette Daniels Taylor, presented by Theatre of Youth (TOY), starring Davida Evette Tolbert as Peter, with Megan Rakeepile and Roderick Garr in other roles, runs through February 5, Saturdays – Sundays at 2:00, with a special adaptive performance this Sunday, January 22 at 10:00 am at 203 Allen Street, Buffalo, NY 14201 716.884.4400  

Runtime: 50 minutes no intermission, recommended for ages 5+, talkback after every show.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  We follow Peter and his friends as they set out to celebrate the first snowfall of the year with snowball fights, by making snow angels, and playing in the snow.  Based on the Caldecott Award-winning book written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, it celebrates the magic and boundless possibilities of the first snowfall.  The 1962 publication of “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats was a watershed event. It featured an African American child as the protagonist and it was universally embraced.  Other stories are included in this musical, including “Goggles,” “Whistle for Willie,” and “A letter to Amy.”  All those books (and more) are available for purchase from Talking Leaves Books at a display in the lobby (credit cards accepted).

Davida Evette Tolbert (Peter) and Kristen-Marie Lopez (Archie) and Willie with GOGGLES!

2A Peter Dreaming of his Snowy Day (Peter Played by Davida Evette Tolbert, with puppets designed by Michele Costa)

1A Director Annette Daniels Taylor (Photo by Christy Francis)

Peter tried to mail a LETTER TO AMY (Peter played by Davida Evette Tolbert)

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  After a far-too-long wait since BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, it was marvelous to be back at TOY and to hear children laughing and enjoying live theater.  And, as always at TOY, it’s first-rate children’s theater, never “dumbed down” or “phoned in.”

Everyone involved in the show is great, but there are two stars.  One is actress Davida Evette Tolbert as Peter, making vocalizations as he goes through his busy days, in constant motion.  (Tolbert told the young audience at the talk back that it’s exhausting to play a five-year-old because they never stop moving.)  The other star and an audience favorite was the full-sized puppet dachshund “Willie” as conceived by puppeteer extraordinaire Michele Costa whose relationship with TOY goes back decades.  Willie was manipulated by actor Roderick Garr and was an obvious hit with the crowd, me included.  At the talkback, we were told that Willie was fabricated from discarded two-liter soda pop bottles.  Amazing.

The sound effects were fun (Brian Wantuck, Sound Designer) as were the costumes complete with the iconic red snowsuit for Peter (Rashaad Holley Costume Designer) and the moveable set (Ron Schwartz, Scenic Designer).  Great sets are a tradition at TOY.  

On the day I went, no understudies were on stage, but, as we all learned during the pandemic (and from a great speech on stage from Broadway star Hugh Jackman following a performance of THE MUSIC MAN) understudies, swings, and standbys, even if not seen, are critical to every show’s success.  For this run they are Whitney Dean, Jerai Khadim, and Kristen-Maria Lopez.  

Ask any theater goer you know “What was the first play you saw?” and you’ll always get an answer.  THE SNOWY DAY would be a memorable introduction for a young person, but if you’re older (and even MUCH older) you will still thoroughly enjoy this production.

Hang on to your playbill because on pages 14 through 20 there are many activities to enhance your experience.  There’s even a guide to Theatre Etiquette and the last item reads: “Open your eyes, your hearts, and your minds and enjoy the show.”

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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