Billie Holiday was back on stage singing the blues, trademark gardenias adorning her hair.
As personified by prolific local performer Katrina Garvin, the eponymous protagonist of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” alternated between soulfully sung jazz numbers with spoken vignettes from her life during an opening weekend matinee at Trustus Theatre.
Author Lanie Robertson’s biographical account of the acclaimed singer’s life was a savvy selection for the stalwart professional company’s first live production coming back from COVID-19. Presented in the round and using the same stage and seating configuration first devised for last year’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” it requires no more than a piano, a microphone stand, an accompanist and a singer who can recreate Holiday’s iconic sound.
That last item might have proven an insurmountable obstacle were it not for Garvin, who managed to capture the essence of Holiday’s style without ever veering into imitation or caricature.
Garvin’s biggest challenge was the script’s premise, in which the audience sees the singer perform at a small club in Philadelphia in 1959, shortly before her death. Decades of substance abuse have taken their toll on Holiday, meaning that Garvin had to convey the sense of an intoxicated singer often staggering and slurring her words, while still remaining intelligible and entertaining.
She didn’t physically resemble Holliday that much. But neither did Diana Ross, who starred in a filmed version of the singer’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues.” Or S. Epatha Merkerson, best known as Lt. Van Buren from television’s long-running “Law & Order” series, who starred in an off-Broadway production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” in the ’80s.
My impression was that Garvin was limiting her range to some extent to recreate the deep, rich, smokey and vaguely nasal sound associated with Holiday, who often said that she was influenced by the delivery styles of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Overall, the effect was impressive.
While the character weaved and lurched her way across the stage and often grasped her microphone stand for support, I noticed how Garvin was quite inconspicuously but consciously making sure to play to all four sides of the stage in turn. Director Jocelyn Sanders was likely the sure hand behind this technique — although there is also a program credit for Terrance Henderson as "movement coach" — and under her guidance Garvin subtly became more eloquent during extended speeches about her life.
One such segment about her formative years led into a rendition of “God Bless the Child,” a song Holliday co-wrote about her mother, and a vivid, darkly comedic memory of performing in the segregated South segued into a somber and heartfelt performance of “Strange Fruit,” an indictment of the lynching of African Americans.
Other numbers, however, such as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and the opening "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," were done just for fun.
Special mention must be made of accompanist Shannon Pinkney, who was entirely believable and sympathetic in brief moments of dialogue and blocking, where Holiday’s pianist was forced to cover for her during a break. After a lively piano interlude in the style of Fats Waller, Pinkney gently helped Garvin back on stage, rolling her gloves back up in a subtle nod to the needle marks that would have been on the singer's arms.
An elegant white gown from costume designer Abigail McNeely and appealing hair design by Roger Brasley, Jr. completed the visual recreation of Holiday. Rather than attempting to suggest the accoutrements of an actual bar and risk interference with sightlines, scenic and lighting designer Curtis Smoak wisely opted for a starkly elegant bare stage.
Limited seating ensured social distancing, but groups of attendees were allowed to sit in clusters together. Drinks from the bar were allowed to be consumed at one’s seat, while masks were encouraged to be worn at all other times in the venue.
“Lady Day” is first and foremost a chance for a star turn by a gifted vocalist, recreating a club performance by a long-gone icon for a modern audience. And while the music drives and defines the show, the script's constant references to Holiday’s struggles — stiffer sentencing on minor drug charges that might have led to probation for a white celebrity, the strings that bandleader Artie Shaw had to pull to allow a Black singer in his White band — transformed the material from a cabaret performance into a legitimate biography, accompanied by lots of music.
And even if none of that appeals, Garvin's performance is reason enough to see and enjoy the show.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”
Through June 20. $30-$35. Trustus Theatre. 520 Lady St. trustus.org.