Whether she’s standing in front of the mic looking glazed and dazed into the audience or retreated and semi-nodding in the nook of the piano, Lynn Sterling embodies the haunted spirit of Billy Holiday.
Basically a one-woman show, with bits of support from brilliant accompanist William Foster McDaniel, Sterling does it all. From the moment she steps on the stage, she delivers punch after knock-out punch, all while swaying on unsteady feet (on gorgeous silver stiletto heels), succumbing throughout the night to an assortment of influences. Sterling knows she’s got a job to do and she takes us along for a real time showcase with the legendary songstress – (Eleanor Fagan, a.k.a. Billy Holiday) while providing glimpses of her brilliance, resilience and strength.
The setting for Emerson’s Bar and Grill is minimal and unpretentious-a jazz trio on a platform stage, tables and chairs scattered downstage and Holiday front and center. The stories generally are asides the singer shares with an audience, a rather straight-up formal approach with limited room for behind the scenes dishing, just sharing between a performer and her small appreciative audience. Still, used effectively, this technique brings the listener directly into the piece, nodding appreciably to the music, enjoying the soulful rhythms of the jazz trio, and mainly being mesmerized by Sterling because she is the show. A striking figure, with chiseled cheekbones, Sterling is drop-dead gorgeous, has a comfortable bearing on stage and moves in an effortless, unconscious way, while seemingly oblivious about her power. In her rendition of the singer, Sterling looks out into the audience without connecting with a soul-she exudes an inconsolable loneliness that cuts like a knife when coupled with the stories of lost dreams, disappointment, and betrayals. Dressed in brilliant white, down to long fingerless gloves (to hide injection tracks marks) and lovely shawl, Sterling portrays Holiday at her picture perfect glamour-shot best. But the piece lets us peek beneath the beautiful make-up and behind the cool jazzy façade to get a hint of the misery below. And it isn’t pretty.
But then, there is the voice. Rather than do imitations of Holiday, Sterling’s renditions of the songs reflect a rock-solid appreciation of the singer’s plaintive style, tonality, and phrasing. She croons, she cajoles, she can pluck a nerve with her indomitable strength and crumble on the spot, all within the turn of a selection. The stories flow like an undertow beneath the wave of songs, and it doesn’t take a jazz lover to appreciate riding the wave. The stories, generally are not tied to the songs according to message or content-there are only subtle hints of connections. Anything more obvious would be too neatly organized, too sugary sweet to appropriately represent the raw-packaged, sometimes foul mouthed Holiday, who you could easily imagine kicking off her shoes and enjoying a Pig Foot and Bottle of Beer. Instead, the selections seem totally impromptu – they don’t follow the order of the program listing, a nice touch reflecting the singer’s unstable life, desperate life choices, and knock-down, drag out fight for survival-nothing about Holiday’s life was tied up with a neat bow.
The show’s creator makes a theatrical arch through the culmination of the singer’s experiences that build naturally, or better yet, descend into the hellish world of Billie Holiday. Still, the play is not depressing. Even to the bitter end when she literally starts to crumble from the weight of the discrimination, hardship, and addiction, it’s Holiday’s music (embodied by her trusted pianist friend) that holds her up. This production of Lady Day depicting a troubled artist and tortured soul in the hands of a less capable performer could become tedious or at best, just an interesting cabaret. With Lynn Sterling at the helm, though, it’s time travel to a dusty old bar and grill in Philadelphia sharing time with the legendary Billie Holiday.