December 12, 2003
In both her technique and her mystique, Billie Holiday was as much folk legend as jazz virtuoso. With her bruised, scratchy voice and inimitable phrasing, she was a true American original--a tough, hard-living woman with a luxuriant, even rarefied artistry.
In Lanie Robertson's light, ploddingly agreeable cabaret-play "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," we're supposed to be watching one of Holiday's final club performances, just months before she died in 1959 of a drug-related heart attack at age 44. By that year, the once-robust chanteuse was a walking skeleton with more heroin than blood in her veins and a voice that had become a froggy, imprecise warble.
Admittedly, an evening with that Billie might be a bit too depressing, but Peggy Ann Blow, a fine actress and an accomplished singer, could at least give us an impression of Holiday's tragic, hypnotic brokenness. Instead she starts out a sassy, smilingly profane raconteur, recounting a life of regrets and anecdotes. She sings with flawless diction--and a range bigger than Holiday's single octave--such hits as "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit." Then, with unconvincing suddenness, she staggers backstage for an obligatory injection and emerges a stumbling, weepy wreck clutching a Chihuahua in her needle-bruised arms.
Danny Holgate's slick arrangements, played expertly by pianist Herman Jackson and bassist Del Atkins, give us a cursory tour of Holiday's diverse catalog--from blues stomps to perky standards to languorous ballads--without giving us much sense of what made her special.
In short, this would make a reasonably diverting and informational cabaret if we weren't asked to suspend our disbelief. It's a decent evening but no Holiday.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Ends Thursday, reopens Jan. 6-Feb. 26. $25. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.