We’ve all played this game: If you could share a drink with one person from history, living or dead, who would you choose? For music fans in general and jazz fans in particular, the answer is often Billie Holiday.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, running now at Actors Cabaret of Eugene, gives audiences that chance. The play debuted in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, with a recent off-Broadway run starring Audra McDonald in the titular role.
Lady Day is a one-woman show, serving mainly as a vehicle for Holiday’s timeless music, interspersed with anecdotes from the singer’s notoriously rough life — stories touching on mid-20th century race relations as well as Holiday’s well-documented issues with substance abuse and her tangles with the law.
Billie Holiday’s singing voice is one of pop music’s most distinctive, influential, imitated and parodied. Admirably, Alexis Myles in the title role never seems to be mere impersonating. Myles appears luminescent in a white evening gown, Holiday’s signature pure-white blossom affixed above her right ear.
Throughout the performance, Holiday’s vocal flaws are all present: the drug-and-alcohol induced flat notes, the swooping, mile-long vowel sounds, the crackling tone and the drowsy tempos. While these might be flaws when viewed in the context of proper technical singing, they amount to what made Holiday such a brilliant and emotive stylist. Myles nails them all. “Singing is living to me,” Myles says.
Jim Greenwood ably accompanies Myles on piano, and their impromptu, off-the-cuff banter is a highlight. It’s a bit of a shame he plays an electric piano, creating a slight disconnect to the illusion of a ’50s-era nightclub. Myles’ inter-song monologues are charming, funny, bleak and often quite moving.
Smartly, Myles and director Joe Zingo focus on little touches that make the ghost of Billie come alive: the dichotomy of Holiday’s beautiful music and her coarse, streetwise personality and life experiences; the ugly sneer she allows her face to transform into while interpreting Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit,” and the transporting joy she feels at the waning notes of every tune, letting the sound free into the air like so many fluttering doves. — William Kennedy
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs through Sept. 19 at Actors Cabaret of Eugene; tickets at 683-4368.