As audiences file into the Theatre 773 (tastefully designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec to resemble Philadelphia’s Emerson’s Bar & Grill,1959), Billie Holiday is being pampered and encouraged by her musicians in her tiny backstage dressing room. This midnight performance will be remembered as one of the artist’s final public concerts. Miss Holiday’s life, filled with pain, prejudice and powerful performances, is detailed in the artist’s between-song patter. The result is a 90-minute evening that entertains, enlightens and touches the audience’s hearts.
Director Rob Lindley and musical director Jaret Landon (who plays Billie’s current love interest and pianist) have guided this “musical biography of a legend” into an elegant evening of music, humor and pathos that pays tribute to one the finest of America’s jazz greats. There can be no better way to celebrate a month heralded as Black History Month. Performed simply on a small proscenium stage with only a mic stand and her three incredibly talented instrumentalists (Landon on upright, Chris Thigpen on bass and percussionist Michael Weatherspoon), Miss Holiday gives the performance of her life.
And that brings us to the astonishing Alexis J. Rogers in the title role. Ms. Rogers doesn’t just sing Holiday’s songs; she inhabits them with the very spirit of this legendary chanteuse. Her soft purring vocals envelope the audience as do her sometimes hilarious, often sad and bitterly tragic life stories. There is an earthy, homey girl-next-door quality Ms. Rogers brings to an artist who survived abuse, racial prejudice, parental abandonment, police brutality, drugs and liquor to emerge simply as a loving, caring young woman who wanted nothing more from life than a home, some children and to be able to sing for her fans, her “friends,” as she called them.