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Were she still alive, Billie Holiday would have turned 100 last April. That would have surprised the hell out of “Lady Day,” since she lived an epic life and died July 17, 1959, of complications from drugs and alcohol. Throughout her last weeks in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, she was under arrest for drug possession. Police even guarded her room.
Lanie Robertson’s 85-minute musical-play takes place in March, 1959, two months before Billie goes to the hospital. She appears at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a small, South Philly club, and she’s miles from the legendary jazz singer, who could light up the universe and whom Frank Sinatra swore was his greatest influence.
She’s a wreck. She doesn’t wear her two signature gardenias over the left ear. She’s tipsy (that clear fluid she drinks from a tumbler isn’t water) and ill at ease.
“I never got on too well in Philly,” she says, referring to her trial and conviction for drug possession in a local courthouse. And maybe this memory stirs others and prompts her to sing songs and relive the pain of abusive relationships and racist evils she can’t erase with self-medication.
She talks about becoming a “new” Billie. No more flowers or “moonlight” (a veiled reference to heroin?). But maybe the critical DJs are right: the original Billie Holiday, all 200 pounds of her, has shrunk. The voice is scratchy, the verve, blunted, the eyes half-dead.
In some senses she’s already in the grave — or at the hospital. When a song “finds” her — as with “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer),” and the terrifying “Strange Fruit” — singing’s her life raft, pulling her back to fresh air.
Ion Theatre’s production had a “give it a week” feel. Much of the drama felt contrived. The playwright has obviously calculated Billie’s breakdowns for effect. And the performers were a few rehearsals away from the spontaneous urgencies of the moment.
“Lady Day” is one demanding role. The performer must look and sound like Billie Holiday, in decline, and do long, often horrific monologues between songs. Plus, her emotions must rise and plummet on separate tracks.
Director Claudio Raygoza has cast multi-talented Cashae Monya as Billie. She’s too young, and comes on too strong at first. But she delivers the biggies (especially “God Bless the Child” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”) and has the outline of Billie’s bipolar nosedive in place (no mean feat). A very good effort, at times even special. Filling in details and more immediacy could come in time.
Brandon Sherman plays Billie’s pianist/therapist Jimmy. He provides excellent accompaniment, but he reveals the book’s creaky tricks when he must come to her aid.