By Jill Gilmer
It’s hard not to have a great evening at the Stackner Cabaret. The nightclub-style setting creates a relaxed and festive atmosphere and the well-heeled crowd doesn’t seem to mind sharing tables with strangers and chit-chatting over cocktails or coffee and dessert. Add to this backdrop the wonderful music of Billie Holiday performed by Grammy award-winning singer Regina Marie Williams and you have the recipe for a string of sell-out performances, which Lady Day has enjoyed since it opened on March 16.
But theatre-goers hoping to learn more about the life and legacy of this jazz icon may leave the Cabaret disappointed. Like many theatrical productions that examine a celebrity figure, Lady Day focuses less on Ms. Holiday’s life and career and more on her personality. While this in itself is a worthy endeavor, director David Hunter Koch’s obsession with her surprising dark side nearly overshadows both her story and her talent.
The story takes place at the Emerson Bar & Grill, a hole-in-the-wall jazz club in Philadelphia and the actual site of one of Holiday’s last performances before her death in 1959, at age 44. Emerson was, apparently, one of the few clubs in the U.S. where she was still welcomed. A series of temperamental incidents – most likely exacerbated by alcohol and heroin abuse – had tarnished her reputation and limited her performance venues. Regina Marie Williams delivers a riveting enactment of Ms. Holiday’s descent into a drunken trance over the course of her 1-hour and 15 minute performance. At least, we can only hope it was alcohol that fueled the seemingly-endless string of expletives that dotted her performance and the insults she hurled at her unsuspecting audience.
Despite her unbalanced portrait of Ms. Holiday, Regina Marie Williams does a superb job capturing the emotional intensity and famed uniqueness of Ms. Holiday’s voice, if not its exact tone quality. A highlight is a soul-stirring rendition of “Strange Fruit,” her classic song about Jim Crow-era lynchings. The song is a fitting conclusion to Ms. Holiday’s account of a racist incident she experienced while touring with Artie Shaw. That story reminds us of the difficult era (the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s) during which she succeeded in establishing herself as an African-American singer with a ground-breaking sound. The enormous obstacles she had to overcome are proof that this lady was far more than a drunken diva. VS
Lady Day runs through May 13 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s Stackner Cabaret. For tickets and information, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.