You can take Thomasina Petrus out of the theater but you can't take Billie Holiday out of her life.
After wrapping up her triumphant, extended run in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at the Jungle Theater on Sunday, Petrus brought Lady Day to the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday. This was a tribute to Holiday, not a reprise of the theater vehicle in a different setting.
Only once in nearly two hours onstage did the Twin Cities actress/singer go into her dialog from the show. But she did sing many of the selections from “Lady Day” as well as several others associated with Holiday. And Petrus even essayed a couple of songs in a way she thought Holiday might have interpreted them. The experience was almost as extraordinary as the Jungle presentation.
Petrus’ admiration for Holiday was obvious as she told all kinds of stories about songs, lovers and life situations. The actress' words provided excellent perspective and context. But most important was the music itself.
Petrus has mastered Holiday’s slightly slurred inflection, languid phrasing and sleepy/druggy delivery. Outstanding were her treatments of “Fine and Mellow,” “Strange Fruit,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and a swinging “Them There Eyes,” with a little Ella Fitzgerald-inspired scatting tossed in for good measure.
Most interesting were Petrus’ ideas of how Holiday might have done some songs she did not record. One was a Lady Day composition copyrighted in 1960, a year after she died. Aretha Franklin recorded the song, “Who Needs You,” back then, so Petrus started it like Aretha and then finished it like Lady Day -- soft and sassy.
An inspired imitator, Petrus also added tastes of Bessie Smith here and Louis Armstrong there to Holiday’s songs. And Petrus offered Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” in what seemed to be her own voice.
No matter whose voice this versatile vocalist/actress was channeling, she made the songs special.
Props to Petrus’ terrific trio of drummer Kevin Washington, bassist Ron Evanuik and pianist Tom West, who added lots of licks not in the theater show.
Petrus returns to the Dakota on Tuesday for another night of Holiday music.