Spirit of Holiday channeled at Stackner Intense internal energy fuels Williams' organic performance By DAMIEN JAQUES Journal Sentinel theater critic Posted: March 19, 2007 Mesmerizing is a word critics should use very judiciously. It's a term that carries big expectations and responsibilities. 'Lady Day at Emersons Bar & Grill' Photo/Jay Westhauser Regina Marie Williams uses nuance and exquisitely subtle shadings to portray jazz singer Billie Holiday in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." If You Go What: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" When: Through May 13. Where: The Stackner Cabaret at the Baker Theater Complex, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets are on sale at the Milwaukee Rep's box office in the complex's lobby, by phone at (414) 224-9490, and online at www.milwaukee rep.com. But I can't think of a better way to describe Regina Marie Williams' performance in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," the new show the Milwaukee Repertory Theater opened in its Stackner Cabaret over the weekend. Williams plays the late jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lanie Robertson's well-written theater piece, a monologue-concert hybrid. Actually, Williams channels the troubled singer to a degree that few performances attain. She toys with something that seems beyond acting. It's more visceral, organic and almost ghostly. No wonder the lone act flies by as if time is standing still. Playwright Robertson used the conceit of placing "Lady Day" in a Philadelphia jazz club near the end of Holiday's short life. She died in 1959 at the age of 44. Billie is out of prison and has a new boyfriend-piano accompanist. She is on stage at the intimate Emerson's Bar & Grill to entertain the smattering of fans and jazz aficionados who have shown up. Holiday sings 17 songs, and between numbers rambles on, talking about her life. The star was a poster child for the crushing price of racial bigotry exacerbated by bad personal choices. She was raped at 10, then handed over by her mother to a brothel madam as a teenager. He first husband introduced her to heroin, begging her to sample it as a sign of her love for him. Billie had a knack for being attracted to the wrong men. Holiday's career was short-circuited by the double whammy of prejudice and her frequent conflicts with the law. The best jazz songs were often restricted to white singers to record, and Billie talks about the indignities suffered by black touring performers in the first half of the 20th century. The club appearance we are witnessing is lubricated by the constant sipping of alcohol as Holiday sings and talks. Her stability gradually slips away. A different route Most singer-actresses portray an increasingly inebriated Billie sloshing through her final songs. With her intense internal energy, Williams takes a different route. She exudes the instability using nuance and exquisitely subtle shadings. That makes the character's descent more harrowing. Williams also underplays her performance of "Strange Fruit," Holiday's signature song about lynching. Broadway composer E.Y. (Yip) Harburg called the number a "historic document." In Williams' interpretation, she sings "Strange Fruit" without a great deal of drama but with impeccable clarity, demonstrating that less can be more. The singer-actress employs a remarkably expressive face and physicality to suggest a compelling presence despite faded glamour and an erratic spirit. Vocally, Williams has a distinctive style that offers a velvet purr sometimes punctuated with a hint of spunky squawk. Pianist William Knowles ably handles the keyboard and the few lines of dialogue he has with Williams.

REGINA MARIE WILLIAMS

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