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The show must go on: Florida Rep resurrects 'Lady Day' at Alliance for the Arts after Hurricane Ian

Ebony in Billie Holiday costume.jpg
Tara Calligan
Ebony Pullum as Billie Holiday (front) sings “What a Little Moonlight Can Do" during a promotional photoshoot at Florida Rep's ArtStage Studio theatre on September 16, 2022. Behind Pullum is Garrick Vaughan as Jimmy Powers, Billie's friend and piano player, in the musical.

What took over a month to execute is now happening in a matter of days as the sound of drills and nail guns echo throughout the Alliance for the Arts.

Florida Rep production crew members are quickly working to transform the Foulds Theater stage into Emerson’s Bar & Grill – the gritty Philadelphia bar where Jazz legend Billie Holiday gave one of her final live performances, just months before her death in 1959.

Florida Rep at Alliance crew for Lady Day
Tara Calligan
Florida Rep production crew members are working at a quick pace to replicate the set of Emerson's Bar & Grill, only this time at the Alliance for the Arts Foulds Theatre. The Florida Rep suffered extreme water damage after Hurricane Ian, rendering the theatre's ArtStage Studio unusable.

The mood is busy, but not frantic, as the crews buckle down to do whatever is necessary to get the show operational in the new space.

Close to four-feet of Hurricane Ian storm surge flooded the 107-year-old Arcade Theatre building after opening weekend of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grille” at the Florida Rep just six days before the hurricane struck.

First Street Arcade Building_DJonsson.jpg
Florida Repertory Theatre
Debris lines the front curb the 107-year-old Arcade Theater in downtown Fort Myers after close to 4-feet of storm surge from Hurricane Ian flooded the building.

Most of the first floor, including Florida Rep’s intimate ArtStage Studio where Lady Day was originally staged, suffered extreme water damage and left behind a thick, pungent layer of black mud.

Florida Rep boxoffice after Ian.PNG
Florida Repertory Theatre
Most of the Florida Rep suffered extreme water damage caused by Hurricane Ian. After storm surge receded, a thick, pungent layer of black mud was left behind.

In spite of the devastation wrought by Ian, the production team is resurrecting what set pieces could be salvaged and rebuilding what could not in preparation for a sort of second opening night at the Alliance.

“The cool thing about it is that the scene is an old rundown jazz bar, so the more damage we got to the set, the better it looked,” said Clark.

Charles Clark, production manager at the Florida Rep, says without missing a beat, the production crew assembled immediately after the storm to help get the theater and Lady Day back on track.

“They came in and helped rip up floors, rip out walls, save our sets," said Clark. "They worked tirelessly for two weeks trying to get to where we are today.”

Florida Rep cleanup after Ian.PNG
Florida Repertory Theatre
Florida Rep crew members begin removing water damaged flooring and drywall after Hurricane Ian flooded the ArtStage Studio where Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill was originally staged.

Julie McCracken, Senior Paint Charge at the Florida Rep, is calmly tracing the words “Emerson’s Bar & Grill'' in black paint onto plexiglass that will look like the front window of Emerson’s bar.

McCracken points out a storm surge waterline two-feet from the floor forever stains pieces of the mock-brick wall of the set.

Emerson's bar & Grill at the alliance
Tara Calligan
At the Alliance for the Arts, Julie McCracken, Senior Paint Charge at the Florida Rep, is calmly tracing the words “Emerson’s Bar & Grill'' in black paint onto plexiglass that will look like the front window of Emerson’s bar. A few of the Lady Day set pieces were salvaged from the Florida Rep after Hurricane Ian. The sign was saved at first, but ended up with damage during transport from theatre to theatre.

“It's hard to tell what was painted and what was an actual flood mark,” said McCracken.

She says continuing on with the show gives her hope that Southwest Florida will rebound.

“It's giving me hope that we will recover faster. We may not recover and be the same, but we will recover and be something,” said McCracken.

Philadelphia-based actor Garrick Vaughan performs as Billie Holiday’s piano man Jimmy Powers in the show.

The character helps push the musical’s narrative along, encouraging Billie throughout to sing more and tell stories less as she delves deeper into her tragic past, discussing themes of racism, substance abuse and loss, while drinking herself to the bottom of a bottle of gin.

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill actors
Tara Calligan
Philadelphia-based actors Garrick Vaughan (left) and Ebony Pullum (right) pose in costume during a promotional photoshoot at the Florida Rep on September 16, 2022.

Vaughan was staying above the Florida Rep in the Bradford apartments when Ian hit. After seeing the state of the set following Ian, he wasn’t sure if the show would go on.

“You're unsure about what the future of the show is and what the future of the theater even is," said Vaughan. "And all this time that you've committed to working out this show and being here for X amount of time, it throws a lot of things into uncertainty.”

The intimacy of the smaller ArtStage Studio space at the Florida Rep certainly lends to the musical’s ambiance, where the seats and stage are all on the same floor allowing Ebony Pullum, who plays Billie Holiday, to interact with audience members throughout.

Yet Vaughn believes the change in space will not take away from the Alliance performances.

“It's not as intimate as the art studio space back at Florida Repertory Theater, however, I do think that the message is still very clear," said Vaughn. "So, as we go along through this process, we just see how the audience takes to it, and I think this is something that they'll appreciate.”

The Alliance’s 130-seat Foulds Theater is almost at capacity as “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” begins.

For that hour and twenty-five minutes, all the focus is on Pullum as she expertly brings Billie Holiday to life emulating her uniquely recognizable speaking voice, mannerisms, and of course, songs.

The closing of the gut-wrenching performance brought everyone in the audience to their feet, including Miromar Lakes resident Ellen Ghelardi who has lived in Southwest Florida for the last 20 years.

Ghelardi says Hurricane Ian took a mental toll on her, but going to the theater has her feeling reinvigorated.

Lady Day setlist
Tara Calligan
Setlist of Billie Holiday songs performed during the musical "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." Set in 1959, Lady Day chronicles the singer’s heart-wrenching life story and celebrates the music she gave the world. With the help of her piano man, Billie lets her music tell her story and shares her most beloved songs.

“This show energized me," said Ghelardi. "I was feeling very exhausted. I was sort of down, but yeah, the arts, the music, the energy, the just the buzz that you hear in the background of the people, it's very uplifting.”

She applauds the Florida Rep for continuing with Lady Day as the theater recovers and restores the space to its former glory.

“The arts are a vibrant part of our community and we need to remember that they’re here for us.”

"Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill" runs until October 29th at the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers.

Florida Rep Reopens Historic Arcade and Celebrates with Free Admission

“Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” a new, situational comedy by Katie Forgette, opens Friday, Oct 28 and runs through November 13. As a gift to the community, Florida Rep is offering free admission for B-section seating at the 7 PM performance on Saturday, October 29. Limited free seating available; advance reservations required.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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