- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

Although a devotee of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, Billie Holi- day never considered herself a blues singer. She was a jazz singer, pure and simple, someone whose behind-the-beats phrasing danced over notes the way an eyelash strokes a cheek. There was softness in her voice, and nuance, a discretion that befits someone whose nickname, “Lady Day,” implies royalty.

Yet you also can detect the blues she loved in her voice, which sounds like sorrow. Whether the song is upbeat or subdued, you can always hear the high lonesome train-whistle loneliness, that quarter-to-3 a.m. kind of melancholy. This is someone who has a daily, first-name acquaintance with sadness, as one of her hits, “Good Morning, Heartache” attests.

So much myth and tragedy befogs Billie Holiday’s life that it seems impossible to set the record straight. Lainie Robertson’s stage show “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” (at Arena Stage through June 4) does not attempt a definitive biography but instead tries to capture the calamitous spirit of the Baltimore-born singer, who rose to fame in the 1930s with such big-band leaders as Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

“Lady Day” takes place in 1959, the year of Miss Holiday’s death at age 44 from years of hard drinking and heroin addiction. Down on her luck but still wearing the signature gardenias in her hair and immaculate white evening finery, Lady Day (Lynn Sterling) performs in a tattered jazz club in Philadelphia. It’s a gin-soaked evening as she tipples and sinks deeper and deeper into reveries about her past loves, racism on the road and her unorthodox early years, which included more than a few stints in brothels.

Her patient accompanist, Jimmy Powers (William Foster McDaniel), tries to keep Lady Day on task but eventually becomes more of a caregiver when it becomes clear she’s never going to finish this set. Her stories are vivid and quite salty, and you wonder if even a strung-out Billie Holiday would be so vulgar in 1959. Yet even in her darkest hours and with a voice cracked by years of abuse, Lady Day still had majesty. They didn’t call her “Lady” for nothing.

In between the distracted ramblings, audience members get a taste of what made her so intoxicating, as evidenced in the songs “God Bless the Child,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” “T’aint Nobody’s Biz-ness” and “Strange Fruit,” her majestic, unsettling opus on lynching.

Miss Sterling does not try to staunchly imitate Miss Holiday but neatly captures the flavor of her singing style; the distinctive phrasing, the soft, plush tones. Miss Sterling nails it with “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child,” the two songs most associated with Lady Day. Some of her other vocal efforts have the cadences down pat but not the heartache. In places, she sounds awfully hale for someone with one foot in the grave and a voice shot to blazes.

While “Lady Day,” ably directed by Kenneth Lee Roberson, offers a melodic and frequently entertaining evening, there’s a tawdriness about its depiction of the legendary vocalist. Certainly she was no saint and she lived her life with prodigious recklessness, but Billie Holiday had class and a voice that was elegant with a touch of hauteur. Making her a tramp does an injustice to Lady Day.


WHAT: “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” by Lainie Robertson

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 4.

TICKETS: $49 to $68

PHONE: 202/488-3300


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