Porchlight’s ‘Lady Day’ a triumph of song, artistry
Petite and pretty in a creamy satin dress and opera-length gloves — her hair meticulously coiffed and makeup just so — Alexis J. Rogers arrives on stage to play Billie Holiday in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of Lanie Robertson’s play-in-the-form-of-a-gig, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” And as she steps up to the microphone and launches into the soul-baring Johnny Mercer song, “When a Woman Loves a Man,” something close to miraculous happens.
It takes barely a bar or two before the spell has been cast. The unique timbre, intonation, phrasing, color and, most crucially, the abiding anguish that marked Holiday’s singing are all there. Yet Rogers is no mimic. Rather, she has somehow managed to crawl right into Holiday’s psyche and reactivate the voice in a way that should dazzle even the most fervent devotees. And she brilliantly sustains this miracle for the next 90 minutes as she takes us through one set at the Philadelphia bar where Holiday has been able to find work.
It is March, 1959, and within four months the singer, 44, will be dead — the victim of a chaotic childhood, rape at age 10, a period of prostitution, several prison stints, pervasive racism, too much alcohol and a husband who introduced her to heroin, a habit that would undo her. Meanwhile, she also had a career that took her to the heights, including a Carnegie Hall concert.
If Rogers’ vocal magic were all, it would be more than enough as she makes her way through 14 of Holiday’s best-known songs — from the playful “Gimme a Pig Foot,” to the horrific “Strange Fruit,” from the fervent “God Bless the Child” to the self-deflating love song, “Don’t Explain.” Each rendering is beyond masterful and wholly immediate — suggesting how she got the “blues feeling” from Bessie Smith and melded it to “the jazz beat” of Louis Armstrong.
But Rogers (who starred in Court Theatre’s production of “Porgy and Bess”) also is an extraordinary actress.
About three-quarters of the way through the show, Holiday begins to lose it and retreats to her dressing room for a fix. She returns, in a drugged state, a glove no longer covering the tracks on her arm. And without ever overdoing things, Rogers’ transformation is complete and devastating.
Rob Lindley’s beautifully modulated direction (richly enhanced by Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s ingenious set), underscores Rogers’ many talents. And the excellent three-piece band (music director Jaret Landon on keyboard leading Michael Weatherspoon on percussion and Chris Thigpen on bass), suggests how Holiday’s musicians tried to protect her.
“Singing is living to me,” says Holiday. Rogers’ star turn is the proof.