No two women could have been more different than Maria Callas and Billie Holiday, but the trajectory of their lives was remarkably similar. Both were gifted singers from impoverished and neglected backgrounds who enjoyed notable success, had a habit of picking men who exploited them, and burned out well before their time. Their lives were simultaneously triumphant and tormented.
Both have also been central to plays produced this season and had the good fortune to be portrayed by actresses who truly understand them, body and soul. Last fall Anne Cullimore Decker gave us Maria Callas; now DeeDee Darby-Duffin is playing Billie Holiday in Pygmalion's production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." Their performances are distinctly different, but each -- in its own way -- is remarkable.
That's because both actors understand something essential about playing a real person, someone well known to audience members: acting is not imitation; acting is re-creation. They can never become the person they are portraying; what they can do is use their unique talents, perceptions, and emotions to communicate that person's essence and experiences to us, and Darby-Duffin is consistently successful in doing that.
Lanie Robertson's play catches Holiday at the end of her life and career when she returns to Philadelphia, where she was arrested a decade earlier, to perform in a small nightclub. Holiday lost her New York cabaret license because of her imprisonment, and although she had recently sold out Carnegie Hall, she missed the hominess of small clubs where she felt most comfortable.
The show is a pastiche of songs and anecdotes about her often-tumultuous life that Holiday shares with the audience: her fragmented childhood, her relationship with her mother, Sadie, whom she called "the Duchess"; her disastrous marriage to Sonny Monroe -- "my first love and my worst love" -- who introduced her to drugs; and her constant confrontation with discrimination as a black singer touring with Artie Shaw's all-white band throughout the South. Some of the stories are funny, some traumatic, and Darby-Duffin handles them with equal ease.
And her smoky singing voice is a fine match for the songs: Holiday standards ranging from "God Bless the Child" to "'T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," "Don't Explain," and "Somebody's on My Mind." Most impressive is her rendition of the controversial "Strange Fruit," performed with just a pin-spot light and images of bare trees on the backdrop.
The staging is simple and direct, and director Teresa Sanderson takes advantage of the cabaret-style seating to have Darby-Duffin wander through the audience as she shares her stories, which gives the production an intimate feeling and energy when the material is flat. Trevor Jerome, who is also the music director, not only adeptly accompanies Darby-Duffin on the piano but contributes some lively solos of his own.
Jesse Portillo's lighting bathes the backdrop with constantly shifting colors, and Troy Klee's sound design features a variety of songs from Holiday's contemporaries to establish mood before the show.
Portraying a legend like Billie Holiday is a challenge for any actor, but Darby-Duffin embraces it with grace and assurance. Although Robertson's material sometimes lags, this portrait of Billie Holiday remains vivid and memorable.
Whether you remember the real Billie Holiday or not, DeeDee Darby-Duffin's portrayal offers a memorable opportunity to encounter the singer and her musical legacy.
When » Reviewed March 25; continues through April 10; today at 2 and 8; Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., 2 p.m. Sunday matinees
Where » Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Black Box Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Running time » 90 minutes, no intermission