Billie Holiday makes an intimate comeback in Spinning Tree’s Lady Day

Hers was a hard life, and it’s been over nearly 60 years, but singer Billie Holiday materializes before us in Spinning Tree Theatre’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

It’s March 1959. Eisenhower is president, and Holiday, who will be dead in four months, is in decline. She’s just 44 and, by this time, not the same Billie, her voice damaged and her reputation sullied by alcohol and drugs and a stint in prison. She scrapes by in small clubs, like this one in Philadelphia, and the occasional performance at Carnegie Hall. “Lady Yesterday,” she claims some are calling her.

Director Andrew Parkhurst saw the play in New York and was so moved by it, he says, he wanted to stage it here. His translation works. Spinning Tree’s sensitive production feels authentic in the Living Room Theatre’s intimate, nightclub-like setting, an ideal stand-in for Philadelphia’s nightspot.

Lady Day with Audra McDonald, who won a Tony for her role in the show’s 2014 Broadway revival, has also been airing on HBO. As the evening progressed, I mentally archived the cable version, with its camera close-ups and large, slick set, and took increasing pleasure in rediscovering this play and its version of Holiday’s visage and voice, wholly embodied by KC’s excellent Nedra Dixon.

Like any piece of art, Parkhurst says, Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play is an interpretation, not a documentary, and Dixon doesn’t replicate Holiday’s distinctive vocal phrasing. But she doesn’t have to; her fluid performance and confident singing render her Holiday believable.

As she takes her subject from singer to raconteur to a near wreck later in the play, Dixon remains in control for this one-act’s 90 minutes, even when her Holiday isn’t. It’s a role that melds the pure joy of performance — “Singing is the best part of living,” she says — with stories, both funny and jarring, that relate a rough childhood and the lingering anger and pain of malicious racism and Jim Crow mistreatment.

With music director Gary Green on piano in an upstage corner of the small stage, alongside bassist Julie Danielson, Lady Day — given the moniker by saxophonist Lester Young — has a set list she must try and get through, though she prefers, she tells us, to sing what she feels.

The play has been criticized by some for an excess of talk. Dialogue often dominates, but it doesn’t detract from the play’s portrait-painting purpose — mirroring her life, Holiday here gets off-track — or prohibit the incorporation of 14 songs. Among the numbers: “Baby Doll” by Bessie Smith, whom she idolized, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “God Bless the Child” and the powerful “Strange Fruit.”

As accompanist Jimmy Powers, Green plays a powerful piano — too strong during the introductory songs on opening night, when his sound took auditory center stage. He mostly tamped down the volume over the course of the show, though his approach sometimes veered from jazz. Ultimately that night, his arrangements and Dixon’s voice found an effective and stimulating balance.

We feel part of the close-in vibe as Dixon meanders among three club tables at the foot of the stage and the first row of seats, or as she makes repeated trips to a bar for booze. Bedecked in sparkling jewelry and an elegant white gown (costumes by Mary Traylor), Lady Day appears as jazz royalty, even as we learn why she wears opera gloves.

Lighting by Nicole Jaja supports the interplay of Dixon, musicians and audience, as well as Robertson’s dramatic turns. We’re focused on Lady Day, and she on us. It’s as though she has compressed space and time to stand in our midst. And then, in the final moments of the play’s fading light, she disappears again, like an apparition — perhaps to that idealized house, filled with kids, that she talks to us about.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Through August 28, at Spinning Tree Theatre, at the Living Room, 1818 McGee, 816-235-6222, spinningtreetheatre.com

Categories: Theater