Lady Sings the Blues

Arizona Onstage's stunning 'Lady Day' brings Billie Holiday to Life

"Billie, you're a genius," wrote songwriter Stephin Merritt of the band the Magnetic Fields, "enough to be a fool."

The "Billie" in question, jazz singer Billie Holiday, is remembered almost equally for the genius of her vocal stylings and the foolish tragedy of her personal life. Arizona Onstage Productions pays homage to Holiday's life and music in its production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

Musically and atmospherically, the evening is stunning, with beautiful renditions of Holiday songs to live music. Actor/singer Anna Anderson successfully captures some of Lady Day's verve and vulnerability. While she does not look or sound exactly like the icon, the dark charisma of her portrayal captures a little of Holiday's essence.

Anderson's performance alternates between manic high spirits and profound sadness as she makes her way through the Holiday catalog. She sings tunes that Billie co-wrote—"God Bless the Child" and "Don't Explain"—as well as numbers by others that she made iconic, such as the 1939 protest song "Strange Fruit," which deals with lynching in the South.

Ever since Holiday died from substance abuse in 1959, artists have used her melancholy and her music for inspiration. There's Frank O'Hara's 1964 poem "The Day Lady Died," as well as Merritt's 1999 song "My Only Friend," in which he reflects that Holiday was a "miracle" and a "fool to gamble everything and never know the rules."

This show, conceived by writer Lanie Robertson and originally produced off-Broadway in 1986, is part play, part musical and part reverie. It imagines Lady Day in 1959, at one of her final performances in the titular Philadelphia bar.

The Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art has been turned by director Kevin Johnson and set-designer Michael Boyd into a real cabaret space. In front of the stage, patrons can reserve a small table and purchase drinks before the show. Lighting designer Zach Ciaburri adds some fake smoke to the dim atmosphere, completing the evocation of a jazz nightclub.

Anderson's live singing is backed by professional pianist Collin Shook, who plays Jimmy Powers, Holiday's accompanist. He's there to encourage her to get back on track whenever she becomes too disconsolate.

Shook, who has just a few lines, is clearly no actor, but he doesn't need to be—he's there to play the piano, which he does beautifully. Yet his presence serves as a focus for some of Holiday's monologues. Sometimes she calls him "Jimmy," sometimes "Sonny"—a reference to Jimmy "Sonny" Monroe, a heroin addict who started Holiday on the path toward narcotics addiction. He clearly stands in for Holiday's troubled relationships with men.

In addition to the piano, there is a bass-player. (Duties are shared by professional musicians Kirk Kuykendall and Dylan DeRobertis.) All three musicians are excellent; there is no need to pretend that we are watching professional musicians perform, because that is exactly what we are doing.

The play itself suffers from having to summarize Holiday's troubled life in too short of a span. Too much exposition between musical numbers occasionally means that the pace drags.

Dressed in an evening gown and long white gloves, Anderson's Holiday chats with the audience between songs. She tells stories about her life, which was marked by poverty, abuse and racism.

In a memorable sequence, Holiday remembers touring as the only black member of Artie Shaw's band in the 1930s. Holiday had to enter restaurants and clubs through the back or eat in the kitchen, away from the white customers. When a white hostess once refused to let Holiday use the bathroom, Holiday peed all over the woman's shoes.

Anderson's Holiday cackles with glee while recounting this tale. A strength of her performance (and Robertson's script) is a focus on Holiday's sense of humor, and her ability to find grim delight in otherwise painful moments.

Anderson adds self-deprecating laughs to hair-raising stories. She describes Holiday's discovery of jazz music while working as a maid in a brothel, and her eventual leap into professional singing when she was desperate to avoid working as a prostitute herself.

Yet certain parts of her tale tumble Anderson's Holiday into deep despair, causing her to rush offstage or grow irritable and confused. Chief among these is her tumultuous relationship with the heroin-addict Sonny. In 1947, Holiday was arrested on charges of drug-possession and spent time in jail, which marked the beginning of her professional and personal decline.

Throughout Lady Day, Anderson frequently returns to the upbeat number "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," even as her character grows increasingly disoriented. As she begs for "some moonlight" throughout the night, it becomes clear that Holiday is talking about heroin. When she staggers back onstage near the end, we can see bloody track marks—that telltale sign of heroin use—peeking out from the top of those long white evening gloves.

As a musical evening, Lady Day is very successful. As a character study, it's more of a summary of Holiday's life than an in-depth look. Still, it's in the songs that Holiday truly left a part of herself, and it's moving to see her live on through this tribute to her music. As Merritt wrote, "Some of us can only live in songs of love and trouble."

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