If Audra McDonald could win a Tony Award for her celebrated 2014 portrayal of jazz icon Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” then what does Twin Cities singer-actor Thomasina Petrus deserve for her more fully realized turn?
Petrus has interpreted the life and work of Holiday off and on for over a decade, mastering her distinctive phrasing and fragile contralto. Beyond the music, Petrus also has a deep and empathetic understanding of things that troubled Holiday, body and soul.
All that is evident in director Marion McClinton’s heartbreaking revival of this music-infused play that opened over the weekend at the Jungle Theater. The play is essentially a solo show, with Holiday interacting with her mostly mum pianist and music director (Thomas A. West). Even so, the creative team has conspired to transport audiences to Holiday’s world, giving us the pain twinned to her ethereal beauty.
Holiday’s life was replete with trauma and addictions, some of which were treated as criminal moral failings. Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915 to ill-equipped teenage parents in Philadelphia, she was raped as a youngster, arrested for prostitution at 14 alongside her mother, and later sent to prison after a narcotics bust. But she’s remembered less for those things now than for her musical genius, with songs such as “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” inspiring a raft of artists from Frank Sinatra to Erykah Badu.
Lanie Robertson’s behind-the-music script, set in the spring of 1959, finds Holiday near the end of her life, singing in a sparsely attended cut-rate venue. Bandleader Jimmy Powers gently tries to keep her on task. Dressed elegantly in costumes by Trevor Bowen, she wears long, fingerless gloves to cover up the needle marks and collapsed veins in her arms. She’s often in a fog, fueled by alcohol. In Joel Sass’ dark and moody nightclub set, lit in blue and red by Michael Wangen, we sometimes see her through a curtain, drinking in her dressing room, barely aware of where she is. But when she starts to sing, her boozy stupor melts away.
The show benefits from having a supple trio; the rhythm section gives the music more of a kick. West’s arrangement of “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s anti-lynching anthem, has a tense, dissonant arrangement performed with a percussive immediacy that suggests the song — and the show, for that matter — is not just about the past.
Director McClinton — who makes a vocal cameo as Holiday’s chihuahua Pepe — gives us an unfussy, easy-paced production that strikes the right balance between Holiday’s struggles and her gifts. And he has in Petrus an ideal vessel to embody Holiday’s contradictions. Petrus not only has the technical tools as a singer and actor, but, as Holiday, she infuses familiar songs with dramatic, affecting emotion. An audience member can feel her struggle between the darkness that draws her in and her hunger for light.
For Holiday, music was a salve that helped her cope with difficulties all through her life. But as Petrus makes clear in her gorgeous performance, it ultimately was no salvation.