Woody Weingarten

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Theatrical Billie Holiday portrait is superb but pain-filled

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

Doris Bumpus superbly portrays Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Photo by Edward Miller.

Doris Bumpus doesn’t try to imitate Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”

She doesn’t try to copy the gritty yet vulnerable quality of the jazz giant’s scratchy, sorrowful voice.

And she doesn’t try to replicate any of the improvisational riffs Holiday refined.

But she totally captures the thrush’s unique vocal phrasing.

And her pain.

Bumpus, in brief, is superb in her solo show at the Palace Theatre in San Francisco.

“Solo,” however, may be half a note short of accurate.

Although she’s onstage all but a few moments of the 85-minute, intermission-less show, Bumpus does interact with Willis Hickerson Jr. He’s a virtuoso pianist and musical director who as the tipsy,tormented nightingale’s longtime piano player Jimmy Power immediately starts bantering with her (and becomes a living Valium pill).

 As the play continues, we quickly recognize their bond.

Jokingly, Holiday says, “Jimmy and me are getting married right after my next divorce comes through.”

But later she talks of relationships less blissfully — such as her imprisonment after a partner stashed drugs in her belongings.

 In authentic-sounding dialogue by playwright Lanie Robertson (replete with street slang and copious use of the “n” word), Holiday speaks, too, of being raped at age 10, weighing more than 200 pounds by 12, becoming a teen prostitute, and getting familiar with drugs and booze (as she guzzles it).

Not to mention the racism (particularly in the South despite, fur coat and limousine, which thrust into my mind the 2019 Oscar-winner, “Green Book”).

She also drunkenly rants about being harassed by “white cops in white socks,” spits out the pejorative “ofays” for Caucasians while describing a blonde-haired bigot who informs her no restaurant toilets are available for a black female.

That anecdote, incidentally, clears a path to the showstopper, “God Bless the Child,” an aching tune Holiday vengefully wrote for her mother.

Bumpus belts it out, unexpectedly effective but vastly different from the heart-wrenching Holiday recording I remember.

All the songs and dialogue lead, naturally, to the anguish of “Strange Fruit,” the soulful melody about lynching.

In between, Holiday mentions jazz stalwarts she sang with, Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Lester Young, and offers an homage to Bessie Smith by singing “Pigs Foot.”

Hickerson is equally bravura in the one piece he fronts with bassist Troy Lampkins and drummer JPaul while Bumpus is offstage, Oscar Petersen’s “C Jam Blues.”

Holiday explains, earlier, that she blends a “blues feeling with a jazz beat” — a style big bands stymied when she sang with them.

“Lady Day…,” part of the Boxcar Theatre’s Sunday solo series, is ultimately half historic monologue, half concert — set in a North Philadelphia dive four months before she died of cirrhosis in1959.

An exquisite balance.

But the African American performer’s spotless long white gloves and white gown (with bodice of beads, sequins and mirrors, and matching spiked heels) are an ideal, touching contrast to the tragic singer’s tattered life and black skin.

And despite sporadic humor, poignancy is the production’s big takeaway.

Such as Holiday (whose non-stagey birth name was Eleanora Fagan) dismissing the insult that, in these final stages of her 30-year career and 44-year life, she’d become “Lady Yesterday.”

The performance by Bumpus, who sang her first church solo at five and has played in “The Wiz,” “Dreamgirls,” “The Color Purple” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” was superlative because of her double-threat stellar acting ability and big singing voice.

The vocals, indeed, are as crisp when she wanders away from the standing mic to an onstage dressing table or into the audience as when she sings right into it.

As for the real-life Holiday, I first heard her unnerving voice on a New York City radio station that featured so-called “race records” when I was a kid.

And I was hooked.

“Lady Day…” is delicately directed by Loretta Janca, who builds tension by almost understating Holiday’s travails and having the vocalist toy with her signature gardenias.

Which leaves me to cite the only remaining crucial credit, Billie’s cuddly pooch, Pepi (simulated by Bumpus’ pet, Foxy).

The white chihuahua didn’t miss a beat being cute.

Or silent.

Which was unlike the audience the night I sat in the 125-seat cabaret at the Palace (which also acts as the throwback ‘20s location of an interactive theatrical experience, “The Speakeasy”). The crowd applauded after each of the 14 musical numbers (and in the middle of some), clapped rhythmically at many, and occasionally cheered, whistled and pounded on tables.

Remaining performances of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” are scheduled for 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 16 at the Palace Theater, 644 Broadway, San Francisco. Tickets: $37 to $63. Info: http://thespeakeasysf.comor 415-891-9744.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.