Fort Worth — Before a song is even sung in Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Billie Holiday (the commanding rich-voiced mezzo Denise Lee) acknowledges her introduction, sets her glass on the piano and smiles at the couple sitting at an onstage table in Tim Catlett’s shabby brick-walled bar constructed in Jubilee Theatre’s steeply raked intimate space. Dressed to vamp and always to sing in a low-cut white dress with long white gloves, Billie Holiday nods to her pianist and musical director Jimmy Powers (a genial, relieved-looking Geno Young) and steps to the microphone.
Written in 1985, and revived for a short run on Broadway last year, the demanding show starred soprano Audra McDonald in a Tony Award-winning performance. Lee, actress, musician and creator of a Fair Park cabaret series, makes her Jubilee Theatre debut in the role she has performed twice before: In 2000 at WaterTower Theatre and in 2008 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
“It’s good to be back at Emerson’s,” Holiday tells us, waving in the direction of the bar, “even though Philly has been a rat’s ass for me.” We later learn she was convicted of drug possession in Philadelphia, went to prison, and lost her New York union card and the right to sing in all but the slimiest dives. “When I die, I don’t care if I go to heaven or hell, long as it ain’t in Philly,” she says, only half joking. It’s March of 1959, and the woman who set the standard for the searing, rapturous jazz songs of her era will die broke and alone in four months in a New York hospital from years of alcohol and heroin addiction—and a yen for men who abused her love and trust.
She jokes that some may call her “Lady Yesterday,” but not just yet. Tonight, she’s here to sing—and “talk to my friends” about the troubles she’s seen—from childhood rape to teenage prostitution, to ugly racial bigotry, that she handles with humor, personal bravery and the support of the boys in the band. She sings a dozen songs, in between the digressions into her grim, short personal life.
She talks about her lifelong devotion to her mother, “the Duchess.” In fact, Holiday wrote her hit song “God Bless the Child” when the Duchess refused to help her and her drug-dealing husband when they were down and out. Lee captures Holiday’s throbbing sensuality and touching vulnerability, both in her stories about the lovers and musicians in her life, and in the delivery of the songs.
Lee sings “When a Woman Loves a Man” with a knowing smile, accepting love as “a one-sided game” that’s nevertheless the sweetest of fates. She delivers the rueful “God Bless the Child” with a quiet bravado, her voice only occasionally quavering into childlike hurt, recalling its origin. “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s famous eerie protest song evoking lynchings in the South, wrenches deep in Lee’s honest, elongated tones.
In her pacing and timing, director Sharon Benge constantly reminds us of Holiday’s pain and exhaustion. Lee staggers a bit as she sips her drink, stares at the floor sometimes while she sings and trembles in real anguish when pushed to sing her hits “that everybody expects.”
But the best part of the show is when Lee, loosened by applause and a little gin, becomes the Billie Holiday who “lives to sing,” and still brings a lively joy to her upbeat songs. The musicians are solid. Backed by Young on piano and Kevin Arthur on base, Lee establishes Lady’s stage domain right away. She’s funny and sexy and girlish and swingin’ all at once, wrapping her amazing voice around “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” Lee chats it up and gets down to the foot-stompin’ bone in “Gimme’ a Pig Foot,” her rollicking tribute to Bessie Smith. Jazzy sophisticate Lady Day gets gritty like Bessie and Denise Lee nails them both in this terrific, happy-high number. This gal can even do a credible Louie Armstrong riff!
After the intermission, for Lady Day “to see a doctor,” we return for the short last set, and her ladyship isn’t in the best of forms. She brings her beloved little dog onstage, holding him close, and even letting him walk up to the folks in the front row. “Romeo,” a rescue dog announced up for adoption before the curtain, cuddled up to Lee like a pro and looked at the audience with friendly curiosity. (We learned later he was adopted, and will go to his “forever home” when the show closes.)
Lee’s rendition of “Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness” is sassy and upbeat, although by the end, her trademark gloves and gardenia are in disarray, and she’s starting to disintegrate from drink. By the time she reaches the exquisite “Don’t Explain” she can barely remember all the lyrics. By the end, Holiday’s truly the ghost of her former self.
I wanted an encore. I wanted to give her “a pig’s foot and a bottle of beer” and ask her to sing one more song.
» Here's a video preview of the production: