December 12, 2003





Not enough light cast on Lady Day


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.

Rob Kendt


"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.