|Monica Cantrell as Billie Holiday|
Opinions are sure to differ, but to get an outside example out of the way: I admired Sam Rockwell's impersonation of George W. Bush more than Christian Bale's otherwise amazing spittin' image of Dick Cheney in last year's "Vice." Rockwell's very approximateness to "Dubya" won me over.
Thus, I liked the obvious sense that I wasn't really seeing Billie Holiday before me Wednesday night when "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" opened in a Fonseca Theatre Company production at the Linebacker Lounge. Monica Cantrell's full-fledged representation of the extravagantly admired singer came through most completely in her singing. When a performer with such a distinctive style as Holiday's can be so well re-created, you have all you need to make Lanie Robertson's play succeed.
Cantrell, who did the show a generation ago in a Phoenix Theatre production, had that in abundance. Already in her first song, "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," I had a catch in my throat. What a marvelous grasp of Billie Holiday she displayed there! The first time she sang the song's bridge, the touch of whimper she imparted to the words "treat me" was spot on. Other authentic touches — delicate ornamentation, perfect diction and pitch sense, and suitable expressiveness — kept animating Cantrell's performance throughout the 100-minute show.
Another Holiday characteristic, behind-the-beat phrasing, never taken to the edge of distortion, was immaculate. It first showed up in the second song, "When a Woman Loves a Man." It helped put across the poignancy of "God Bless the Child," especially in the lingering phrase "that's got his own." Directed by Dena Toler (with music direction by Tim Brickley), Cantrell covered the Holiday spectrum — sometimes in the same song. "Easy Living" hinted at heartbreak, but had a smile at the end.
Stock-still and statuesque in a long white dress, she riveted the packed bar's attention with "Strange Fruit," the searing sketch of Southern lynching outrages that Holiday made a personal anthem. The way Cantrell sang the grotesque phrase focusing on the victims' appearance — "bulging eyes and twisted mouth" — dared listeners to avert their gaze. (The song focuses on Dixie atrocities, but the practice is often illustrated by a photo of a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930).
Some fans of Holiday are swept away by her late period, when heartache and substance abuse had ravaged her voice. But though this show's setting is a Philadelphia dive bar in 1959, the year of Holiday's death, Cantrell's singing had the strengths of the singer in her prime. That seemed fully appropriate: The show is a portrait of an immortal, and why shouldn't her best work be evoked? The way she sang the lugubrious "Don't Explain" evoked some of that late-period fragility quite well.
Who knows how close the spoken words Robertson puts in the singer's mouth match reality? It's certain that the device of having her so fully address the audience between songs doesn't jibe with Holiday's mystique — the isolated diva on whose every note fans used to hang. But I think the anecdotes and the caustic comments about the hard life Holiday lived help complete the dramatic self-portrait. In all her talk, she honors her inspirations — Louis Armstrong for his feeling, Bessie Smith for her big voice — understandably leaving out Ethel Waters, with whom there was no love lost. She references her sorry episodes of prostitution, and she speaks with a combination of rue and affection of the unreliable men with whom she made risky liaisons. She speaks fondly of her triumphs as well, and the ambition that fueled her rise from the depths which eventually claimed her.
The show has a few scraps of dialogue with her pianist, played by Jon Stombaugh, and her friend Emerson, the bar proprietor, voiced by producing director Bryan Fonseca. These serve to reinforce the mood of reminiscence as well as to allude to her ongoing health crises, which were to result in her early death at 44.
I leave to the end my misgivings about one long anecdote. It's a matter of tone, but how Cantrell delivered it may have been stipulated in the text. Obviously, I have never experienced racial discrimination. But I was surprised that Billie's story of her being denied use of the toilet in an upscale restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, was treated as an amusing triumph. With the touring Artie Shaw band gamely agreeing to eat with her in the restaurant's kitchen, she had to endure the hostess's denial to her of access to the restroom. So she gleefully recounts her long-delayed response: peeing on the floor, and all over the racist maitresse-d'hotel's shoes. To me, that's a story of thorough humiliation — Billie's, not her appalling antagonist.
Either Robertson's Billie is to be seen as hiding that humiliation, or she truly felt she won the "argument" by her unavoidable letting go. I was relieved (no pun intended) when the singing resumed, even though the vehicle was the indelibly tragic "Strange Fruit." As usual, music often conveys what needs to be conveyed. I'll just have to settle into the puzzle of knowing how to interpret the anecdote that preceded it.