Near the beginning of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened last Friday at Portland Center Stage, Deidrie Henry, portraying the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, ascends a staircase in the middle of the stage, wearing an elegant white dress, long white silk gloves and a black fur coat, moving slowly, wearily, like an apparition with bad knees. She coughs. Then, still pushing up the last steps, she begins to sing: “All I know is that I love you…”
A couple of hours later, the opening-night party was well under way in the Armory’s second-floor lobby as Henry ascended another staircase. Before she could wade into the crowd, the entire place seemed to turn toward her at once and break into a fresh round of applause, even after the standing ovation at show’s end. All they knew — or at least one salient thing they knew — was that they loved her.
And that’s as it should be. Henry is a well-traveled actor familiar to Northwest audiences from a handful of seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and previous shows at PCS. Her performance here is strong, polished, nuanced, affecting, pretty darn hard not to love. She expresses a variety of facets of what we might expect Billie Holiday’s character and affect to have been — by turns charming, willful, sarcastic, aggrieved, flirtatious, caustically funny, melancholy, tired, sick, and both emotionally and pharmacologically messed up. Her singing is rich, warm, expressive.
Yet I — unlike most of the audience, apparently — came away from the show not quite disappointed or underwhelmed, just not entirely won over. Partly that’s due to some production choices that I’d argue don’t fit the material, but in part that’s due to something about the nature of the show itself.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill fits in a subgenre of a subgenre: family — musical theater; genus — jukebox musical; species — concert simulation. (Another example of the form: the tiresome One Night With Janis Joplin, which premiered at PCS in 2011.) The conceit here is that we’re watching a famous musician performing while in an especially chatty yet reflective mood, so that the between-song banter provides something of an autobiographical sketch and a sense of personal insight or even connection. There might be bits of interaction with onstage musicians or audience members, or other ways to try to build up the narrative frame, but mostly it’s songs and monologue alternating. As such, it’s neither fish nor fowl — not merely a concert, but not quite a play.
Created in 1986 by Lanie Robertson, Lady Day… posits Holiday toward the end of her illustriously hardscrabble life, performing at a South Philadelphia nightclub, fending off a bit of dope sickness now and then, and looking back with a kind of rueful defiance. She’s moody, to say the least. Just before Holiday comes up those stairs at the start of the show, her pianist/bandleader (portrayed with a kind of worried forbearance by Abdul Hamid Royal) returns from checking on her and half-whispers to his bandmates, “Fellas, it’s gonna be one of those nights.”
Yet, as a storytelling form, the concert-play is limited. We get recollections — sometimes superficial, sometimes searing — of the abandonments, the domestic abuse, the racism and so on that Holiday endured through her life. And while there are some sharp observations (“In this country, being arrested is a black folks’ tradition”), the cumulative effect isn’t especially deep.
The script makes several references to Emerson’s as a small club, the sort of up-close-and-personal environment Holiday prefers, and on more than one occasion Holiday chastises her pianist for sitting in the dark. Yet as directed here by Bill Fennelly, there’s no suspending our disbelief on such points. Not only has PCS opted to put the show on its mainstage rather than the more conducive downstairs studio theater, but Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design actually accentuates the spaciousness, with a huge, mirrored back wall that won’t let you forget you’re sitting among several hundred 21st-century Portlanders. Though, with the house lights up for most of the show, you’d be well aware of that anyway. Illusions of intimacy are off the table.
The faux-concert form also impinges on what for the most part is casually vivid writing by Robertson. Holiday frequently annotates her own banter, in a way that distracts as much as explains: “My friend Pres — that’s Lester Young…I named him Pres because to me he’s the President of saxophone players.” “I was playing in Artie’s band — Artie Shaw…” And so on.
Verisimilitude, though, also is a problem here in a more complicated and essential way. One of the things I appreciated most about Henry’s performance is that she doesn’t much try to ape Holiday’s signature singing style. Far too many singers try that already, with middling results (I’m looking at you, Madeleine Peyroux). Instead of the swooping and drooping, the cracking and quavering that characterized Holiday’s sound, especially in her later years as her voice grew ravaged by decades of hard living, Henry serves up the songs with an emotional honesty and vocal artfulness of her own. She’s a terrific singer, concerned with and adept at diction, tonal purity and other technicalities that sometimes took a backseat in Holiday’s sound.
Yet, with the other shortcomings of the concert-simulation approach, it seems fair to wonder what the show’s central purpose is.
Surely the sadness of Holiday’s personal story has a fair bit to do with her enduring popularity. But her significance rests squarely with her art, her talent for drawing on that story, among other things, to create such a highly individualistic and affecting style of expression. So, is a celebration/appreciation/explication of Holiday more properly about her biography or about her ultimately unduplicatable artistry? Perhaps the dilemma is this: a mimic is inauthentic and insufficient and hence what we don’t want; yet anything else misses the essence of the subject.
Even, maybe, as sterling and stirring a performance as Henry’s.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill continues through July 1 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.