Billie Holiday, that tortured and brilliant singer, went to her final reward in 1959. She was just 44, bedeviled for much of her life by alcohol and drugs. But her distinctive voice and musical legacy have left us, nearly 100 years after her birth, forever intrigued by the woman known as Lady Day.
Playwright Lanie Robertson paints a late-stage portrait of the lady in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a music-filled drama now at the Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs. The show has been done in South Florida before; in fact, star Paulette Dozier played Holiday at the Boca Raton Theatre Guild several months ago.
What makes her performance special is that Dozier is primarily a jazz singer, as was Holiday. Yes, Dozier is also a Carbonell Award-nominated actress, but her power and expressiveness as a singer trump her acting, transporting the audience as she interprets just over a dozen songs written by or identified with Holiday.
Lady Day imagines a 1959 gig at a little Philadelphia club, with Holiday holding forth about her life between songs. Her pianist Jimmy (David Nagy) tries to keep her focused and coherent, supporting her vocals along with a bass player (Kai Sanchez) and drummer (Howard Moss). But Lady Day, who will die within months, is having a bad night.
Striking in a white gown, her signature gardenias tossed atop the piano, the singer swigs booze to keep her demons at bay. But what she’s really craving is a touch of “moonlight,” her euphemism for heroin. And until she gets it, she deteriorates, song by song.
Actually, to be completely accurate, Dozier’s Holiday deteriorates between songs. The actress’ voice is richer and deeper than Holiday’s, and when she’s singing, her voice is reliably strong and dramatic. Listening to her work her way through this set — including What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Crazy He Calls Me, God Bless the Child, Strange Fruit and Hush Now — is an exquisite experience.
Watching this sad, tormented woman get wasted as she reminisces about the many lows of her life is unsettling, even painful, as it should be. That Holiday lived as long as she did is probably something of a miracle. Born to teen parents, she was raped as a child, worked as a maid in a brothel and then became one of the girls. She longed for but never had children. Traveling as a vocalist with white musician Artie Shaw and his orchestra, she was subjected to the ugliness of segregation and prejudice. Her drug addiction earned her time at Alderson Federal Prison, and she then lost the cabaret card she needed to work in New York.
For Holiday, brilliance and ruin went hand-in-hand. That juxtaposition is always on display in Dozier’s performance.