The Reviewer’s Chair: Ashley Saari – Conyer Lee embodies Billie Holiday for Peterborough Players’ finale

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    Tracey Conyer Lee appears as Billie Holiday during the Peterborough Players” production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." COURTESY PHOTO—

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    Tracey Conyer Lee appears as Billie Holiday during the Peterborough Players’ production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." COURTESY PHOTO—

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    Tracey Conyer Lee appears as Billie Holiday during the Peterborough Players’ production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." COURTESY PHOTO—

Published: 8/19/2022 1:00:09 PM
Modified: 8/19/2022 12:56:43 PM

Tracey Conyer Lee takes to the stage at the Peterborough Players for the second time this season, to portray the genius and the tragedy of the legendary Billie Holiday in the Players’ closing production, “Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.”

Between “Cabaret” and “2 Pianos, 4 Hands,” the Players have put a tour de force of musical talent on the stage this season, and that pattern continues with “Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.” Not a musical, but like “2 Pianos, 4 Hands,” relying heavily on music to tell the story – really a given when talking about the life of Billie Holiday – the show relies on Conyer Lee’s portrayal of Holiday’s near-inimitable voice, complete with Holiday’s resonant sound and lilting vocals.

“Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill” tells Holiday’s story from her own mouth, as she is meant to be’ performing a set for a small crowd in the twilight of her career. That is how the show is framed, with Conyer Lee performing many of Holiday’s biggest hits. But between numbers, her show goes increasingly off the rails as Holiday, aided by the bar’s liquor, reminisces to the crowd about her life – her career, her relationship with her mother (“The Dutchess!”) and her first love (and worst love) Sonny White, her love of music and her arrest on drug charges and year in prison.

This is a difficult role to pull off, because it really does show the duality of Billie Holiday, Often, the stories she tells are very dark and maudlin, but told with the charisma of a woman who frames it as something light and fun.

Played differently, this could be a far darker show, but Conyer Lee definitely handles that balance with a deft hand.

Conyer Lee is backed throughout the performance by Ronnie “King” Mason, Jr., who plays her piano accompanist and lover, Jimmy Powers, as well as Don Baldini on the bass. While Mason’s character is named, and the only other part required for the show, he only has a handful of lines. Often, it is the piano speaking for him, with a ringing chime coming from the dark corner of the room pulling Conyer Lee as Holiday from her reminiscences and back to the center stage.

Mason and Baldini generally fade into the background to let Conyer Lee have center stage in what (despite a handful of lines from Mason) is a one-woman show, but they do get a centerpiece when Holiday, suffering from what is implied to be withdrawal, flees the stage, and Mason and Baldini put on a performance of Al Hibbard’s “Blues Entr’act,” which drew its own applause from the crowd.

While not a traditional musical, the music is definitely integral to the show, and skillfully connects the themes of Holiday’s interspersing monologues. She starts out, for example, with the ironic pairing of “I’m in Love Again,” before launching straight into “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” with not a pause in between. One of Holiday’s best known classics, “Blessed Be the Child,” a song she wrote for her mother, comes after her recollections of her. And “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynchings in the South, accompanies the tales of Holiday facing segregation and racism on her tours, where she was good enough for the stage, but not to eat in the main dining room or use the bathroom.

Almost chillingly, after presumably slipping backstage to shoot up, Holiday bursts back onto the stage, throwing herself into “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” so quickly her accompanists’ must scramble to keep up.

For a final performance, to cap off a great season, Conyer Lee as Billie Holiday is the one  to see.

“Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill” continues through Aug. 28. Single tickets are available for $47, and are on sale now. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling the box office at 603-924-7585.

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