AURORA | Billie Holiday’s place in the pantheon of jazz vocalists is unquestionable. Contemporaries like Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington possessed vocal talent that surpassed Holiday’s own limited range. But there has been nobody that has come close to the emotional power with which Holiday performed.
Each note Holiday sung dripped with the pain, longing and joy that had been forged under the weight of a tortured life. Holiday died in 1959 at 44 years old, her life cut short by the alcohol and heroin addictions that destroyed her health but never her talent.
There are times when listening to a recording of Holiday instills guilt, taking such joy at her performance when the tragic ending we know is waiting for the artist once the song is over. And it is in that conflict for an audience that “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” lives in, and why the show has been so successful since it premiered more than 30 years ago.
“Lady Day,” which just opened for a month-long stay at the Vintage Theater, takes place just four months before Holiday’s death. Chased by the abuse of her past, including being raped at 10 and 14 and being forced into prostitution to survive, a lifetime living in a racist system that destroyed the lives of the ones she loved, and racked by addictions to alcohol and heroin, Holiday comes out on stage not only to perform but to fight back against all that has been thrown against her.
Mary Louise Lee, who takes on the monumental task of bringing Holiday to life, is mesmerizing as she takes over the Vintage’s main stage. Lee’s vocal talent is second to none, but it is her transformation into Holiday that makes her performance so powerful. She’s adapted her voice to Holiday’s, mimicking Lady Day’s unique vocal phrasing and breathless sound.
It is impossible to transform a voice into Holiday’s when she was at the end of her life, worn from decades of abuse. But Lee has come as close to it as possible, assisted by her performance when the music stops. There’s always a little risk in shows centered around music that puts acting int the backseat to the vocals. Luckily Lee possesses both in spades.
Pianist Trent Hines, who plays Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers, provides Lee with a worthy counterbalance on stage. When he’s alone, buying time for Holiday as she runs off stage, the audience is treated to a truly talented musician.
There are times when the layout of the stage creates too much space between Hines and Holiday. It keeps the show from capturing the feeling of being in a cramped nightclub, forcing an intimacy onto the audience that could make Lee’s punches land even harder.
The show is set to head to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Garner Galleria Theatre in March after finishing its run at Vintage. The cabaret-layout of that theater might lend an extra hand to fixing that spacing issue but Aurora shouldn’t wait for it to move to Denver. A show this good in city limits should be enjoyed as soon as possible.