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Review: Darby-Duffin offers even richer, deeper Lady Day

Published November 7, 2012 6:25 pm

Stage review • Actor hits new notes and avoids imitation in her revival turn as Billie Holiday.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin as Billie Holiday sings, "You can help yourself but don't take too much" in "God Bless the Child," she might be describing the legendary singer's own life.

From the start, Holiday had only herself to rely on, and every time she started to get ahead, something shot her down. The list was endless: poverty, lack of education, abusive relationships, alcohol and drugs, racial and sexual discrimination.

Darby-Duffin is currently revisiting her knockout performance as Holiday as Pygmalion Productions reprises Lanie Robertson's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." In the two years since she last played Holiday, Darby-Duffin's understanding of the character has grown even richer and deeper.

Holiday's life and music were inextricably mixed. "I just want to sing. Singing is like living to me," she tells us.

Perhaps one reason her songs speak to an audience is that she lived their lyrics. Consider some titles and lyrics: "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone"; "I wanna be somebody's baby doll"; "I'd rather be wrong and sleep right along than wake" in "Somebody's On My Mind"; "I'd rather my man hit me than haul right up and quit me" in "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do"; "Quiet, don't explain. What is there to gain?" in "Don't Explain." Holiday's entire life was a search for love and acceptance, and she was willing to pay anything to get them.

Robertson's play embodies that mix of life and music. It catches Holiday at the end of her career when she returns to her hometown, Philadelphia, where she was arrested 12 years earlier, to perform in a small nightclub, the setting where she felt most at home.

Between songs, Holiday shares snatches of stories about her life: her fragmented childhood; her love for her mother, Sadie, whom she called "the Duchess"; her fatal marriage to musician Sonny Monroe—"my first love and my worst love"—who introduced her to drugs; the continual discrimination she encountered as a black singer touring the South with Artie Shaw's all-white band.

Darby-Duffin transitions easily between the songs and stories, capturing their poignancy and often their humor. She consistently avoids the temptation to imitate the singer. Instead, Darby-Duffin puts on the character of Billie Holiday like a coat, allowing her own remarkable singing and acting ability to shape the singer's experiences and emotions and reveal them to us. Her portrayal fuses Holiday's brilliance with her disintegration. Once again a high point of the show is the controversial "Strange Fruit," where Darby-Duffin expresses the anguish of an oppressed people.

As Jimmy Powers, Laikwan Waigwa-Stone accompanies Darby-Duffin on the piano and provides moral support when Holiday falters.

Director Teresa Sanderson keeps the staging simple and fluid, and the cabaret seating allows Darby-Duffin to interact directly with the audience. Jesse Portillo's versatile lighting varies from vivid colors on the backdrop to intimate spotlighting to match Holiday's moodiest songs.

Even if you have never heard of Billie Holiday, Darby-Duffin's consummate performance will put you in touch with an unforgettable woman whose life was a perpetual balancing act between triumph and tragedy.

features@sltrib.com Lady Day keeps singing the blues

Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin's touching, tour-de-force performance in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" makes this revival worth a second visit.

When • Reviewed on Oct. 25; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 10 with an extra matinee on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Black Box theater, 138 West Broadway, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $20 (with student discounts); at 801-355-ARTS or arttix.org

Running time • 90 minutes (no intermission); Note: The show contains adult language.makes this reprise production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" well worth a second visit.

When • Reviewed on Oct. 25; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 10 with an extra matinee on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Black Box theater, 138 West Broadway, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $20 (with student discounts); at 801-355-ARTS or arttix.org

Running time • 90 minutes (no intermission); Note: The show contains adult language.