Theater

LADY SINGS THE BLAHS

I was in my early 20s when Billie Holiday became my personal idol. Her heartfelt phrasing of the simplistic truths of Tin Pan Alley captured the ache, the wonder, the joy of my young soul as no one else could. She had died three years before I ever thrilled to her rapturous voice, but she was alive to me in a way that only a great artist can be. She had the kind of immortality enjoyed by only a few, like Maria Callas and Marlene Dietrich.

Black Theatre Troupe is now giving us a chance to be present at one of Billie Holiday's last public performances in Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. The play won the Outer Critics' Circle Award in its original production, starring Lonette McKee.

Robertson has created such an artlessly beguiling docudrama that we are hardly aware of any written text at all. Structured as a midnight club act in March 1959 at a dive in south Philadelphia, the play unfolds as if we were in a time machine, and we witness the decaying splendor of one of history's greatest stylists.

Born Eleanora Holiday in 1915 to teenage parents ("Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16 and I was 3"), Billie was known by the last name Fagan, because her grandmother had been the mistress of an Irishman of that name.

A child prostitute, Billie is reputed to have begun her career at Pod and Jerry's speakeasy on New York's West 133rd Street in 1933. Her life was a roller coaster of extremes, rising on the hopes of love, only to be plunged into the depths of drug addiction, the legacy of her misbegotten choices. She was the most famous and successful black singer of her time, surpassing even the great Bessie Smith. She was also a victim of a romanticized sexism that doomed her to a life that only heroin could soften.

Diana Ross made her screen debut in the 1972 film biography Lady Sings the Blues, and her portrayal of the ravaged Billie earned her a Golden Globe Award. But the problem with the film, like the similar What's Love Got to Do With It, is the predictable nature of a structure dictated by chronology.

Robertson has avoided the pitfalls of these melodramatic consequences by focusing on a specific performance, and letting an increasingly drunk Billie tell us her own story as she segues between songs. Whenever she seems in danger of bogging down in self-pity, her worried pianist prods her along with a keyboard introduction to her next number.

After a retreat to her dressing room for a fix, Lady Day rejoins the action, accompanied by her prized dog, Pepe (played with appealing simplicity by an uncredited Pomeranian). Now beyond the slings and arrows of white cops with white socks, Billie croons us into the nether reaches of oblivion, until her pianist insists on ending with an upbeat tempo.

And, oh, those songs! Included are the essential Holiday classics "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit," as well as the great "When a Woman Loves a Man" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," the lilting "'Taint Nobody's Business" and "Them There Eyes." As a Holiday fanatic, I missed "For All We Know" and the unforgettable "He's Funny That Way," but, after all, this isn't the real Billie, so it wouldn't have mattered, anyway.

Director Charles St. Clair has mounted a spare production that presents the subject in her best light, rather like a velvet jewel featuring a star sapphire. The music is professionally played by Ray Carter on bass and Steve Conrady on drums, and is especially enhanced by the graceful fingering and solid acting of Rahn Coleman as Jimmy Powers on the piano. As Emerson, David Hemphill provides a mixture of admiration and menace that tells us far too much of the circumstances of Lady Day shortly before her death.

Of course, what is needed at the heart of such an enterprise is a brilliant actress with a unique ability to mimic vocal greatness. It is a much harder task to suggest the sensual reediness of Billie's voice than for an actor to suggest that he is William Shakespeare or Michelangelo. As Shakespeare, he doesn't have to create poetry, and as Michelangelo, he doesn't have to sculpt.

Unfortunately, the actor who tackles Lady Day must both sing and act sublimely. Diana Ross has a very large talent, but even she fell short of incarnating this special creature. Joyce Carolyn is a better actor than singer, and, in the second half of the evening, manages to convey some of the pathos of a titanic talent sinking beneath an ocean of regret. An able singer, but not a genius, she, too, often misses the final note altogether, whereas Holiday's pitch was eerily accurate. Carolyn demonstrates no sensitivity to the miraculous phrasing of her model. She comes to Phoenix by way of Buffalo, New York, where she scored significant success in this role. If you squint your ears, perhaps it will be enough to savor this opportunity to experience the fading moments of one of our brightest supernovas.

And then you can go home and listen to the real thing.--Marshall W. Mason