If you feel that you have been acquainted with Billie Holiday and want to know her better you might want to venture deeper at Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Crossroads Mall. There you will hear superb singing of famed parts of Billie’s performing career by Tiffany White-Welchen in a production staged by Gordon Cantiello for the Omaha debut of his Performing Artists Repertory Theatre. You can also hear Billie’s own words about her life and times.

The two-hour experience consists of 13 songs mingled with Billie, seemingly unconsciously and spiked with profanity, rambling through elements of her story, with some cherished events but more remembered in anger and disgust, especially regarding racism. The details no doubt come from her many interviews and from her 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, verbal recollections assembled and edited by writer William Dufty. Notice the title, by the way; it does not imply happiness.

Indeed, this is theatre, given that playwright Lanie Robertson created this 1986 concept which features much talk. A tragic tale, not a tender homage. If you prefer to cherish the memory of the legendary jazz great as a beloved renderer of her songs with a sweet, vulnerability along with an impeccable sense of time and rhythm, this won’t be for you. Robertson’s dialogue mostly evokes the dark side of Billie’s rapidly declining existence. This could be a Billie you would not want to see.

Strange fruit, indeed. To plant us in the midst of so much negativity. Sure, this bears telling and sheds light on what we may not have yet known. Ultimately the sad and disturbing point of view could sorrow us to lament her tragic dimensions. Yet, such a concept attended by so much perfectly delivered music and lyrics defuses the effect.  Robertson does pointedly link elements of Billie’s monologues with the meaning of those lyrics. A good device. You can, moreover, enjoy White-Welchen’s unflagging vocal skill.  A good point.  Liike her, any number of performers could stand and impeccably deliver the goods while, away from there, such lives are in shambles.   

If you know little about Holiday’s life and career, you may not be able to catch some references. And the spoken details come compounded by Billie’s confessions delivered as if in a drunken, unfocused state, leading White-Welchen when I saw her, to sometimes mumble and stumble.

Her strong and sturdy voice and her command of every song does wonders to that material. You could, however, legitimately question whether Billie had it so together in these final days of collapse. White-Welchen and Cantiello should be commended, actually, for not going there and for not trying to literally replicate Billie’s sound and inflections.

Pianist Ric Swanson and bassist Steve Gomez played with verve and skill when I attended, doing so before the show started, at intermission as well as throughout Robertson’s piece. The stage faces tables and chairs suggesting a night club with a few refreshments for sale.

Cantiello’s program notes tell that he is formerly from Omaha and that he’s got a background in directing musicals elsewhere. His past teaching career at Duchesne Academy also link him to White-Welchen.  

As for Robertson’s credits, absent from the notes: among his many plays, there have been productions at  Alley Theatre, Arena Stage, Edinburgh Festival, Kennedy Center, Playwrights Horizons and Williamstown Theatre Festival, in Paris and elsewhere. Robertson has also created scripts about other famous people such as Louis Armstrong, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joe Orton, Alfred Stieglitz and Mary Surratt. http://articles.philly.com/1988-09-10/news/26231000_1_lanie-robertson-lady-day-billie-holiday

Presenting this at Crossroads Mall underscores the nature of where Billie was booked at that stage in her decline. That was no major gig. It’s as if her fading ghost is evoked in haunted halls where shuttered doors call forth memories of past glories.    

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is performed at Crossroads Mall, 7400 Dodge Street, Oct. 23 & 24, Fri. & Sat. 7 p.m. Tickets: $37. http://performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org/

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