Billie Holiday was many things — songwriter, vocalist, poet, a woman whose jazz-influenced vocals forever changed the way singers interpret the American songbook. But for the actress Alexis J. Rogers, the singer also known as Lady Day is nothing so much as an opportunity. This show is a chance for Rogers, who has been seen in big Chicago shows from "Dreamgirls" to "Porgy and Bess" to "Hairspray," to reveal what she can do, all by herself, in front of a microphone in an intimate room.
Her Porchlight Music Theatre version of Holiday, as imagined performing late one night in a small club in Philadelphia in 1959, just when the drinking was turning into cirrhosis of the liver and just when the drugs were starting to take possession, constitutes a formidable solo performance under the understated, measured direction of Rob Lindley.
Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" — which I last saw in Chicago in 1996, with Eartha Kitt in the title role — is no profound exploration of Holiday's life or times. It is a rather prosaic re-creation of a particular evening that does not rise to any great dramatic heights. This drama-revue hybrid, thank heavens, has moved on in terms of formative experimentation since Robertson penned "Lady Day" as a snapshot of a moment.
But for all its limitations, this unobtrusive piece does allow Rogers to interpret, with notable verve and veracity, such signature Holiday numbers as "Somebody's On My Mind," "Don't Explain" and, of course, "Strange Fruit," which Rodgers inhabits with such potency that the theater at Stage 773 falls silent. As well it should. Not only does Rogers sound like Holiday, she captures her power, discipline, free spirit and aching vulnerability in roughly equal measures, which is decidedly tricky cocktail to mix.
Rogers holds her work very close to her chest — there's an argument for doing precisely that since the singularly reflective Holiday is in a rough spot, health and welfare-wise, and performing in a small room with a history. I've seen this show ruined by bravura vocal work that rides roughshod over context. But Rogers could easily expand the scale of this performance without compromising its integrity — "Lady Day" sets up a scenario where Holiday can interact with her audience. The circle could expand.
The material also requires the singer to interact with her piano player (the show features a three-piece combo including Michael Weatherspoon on percussion and Chris Thigpen on bass). That complex, interdependent relationship is tricky to pull off. Jaret Landon, who plays delightfully, tends to give back to Rogers mostly laconic neutrality. That works some of the time — thanks also to Jeffrey D. Kmiec's ideal set, this is a very cool show — but there are moments when it is not enough.
That said, what's a "Lady Day" without a Lady Day? Although quieter than Kitt, Rogers has the vocal chops, the heart, the sense of pain, the indomitable spirit of the great woman. Holiday fans will find themselves leaning into that microphone, trying to pull out more and more.
When: Through March 10
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $41 at 773-327-5252 or stage773.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye