Billie Holiday’s music has a way of reaching in and twisting her listeners’ souls.
It’s raw, real and sometimes painful. And it wouldn’t have been the same had her life been different.
Performing her songs is tough enough, but portraying her is an even bigger challenge, one director Greg Williams Jr. was willing to accept in staging New Venture Theatre’s production of Lanie Robertson’s Tony award-winning “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” The show opens Wednesday at the Lyceum Ballroom.
“This show wouldn’t have worked on a stage,” Williams says. “It’s a one-woman show based on Billie Holiday’s final performance. The Lyceum Ballroom is a more intimate setting, and everyone will be sitting at tables. We’re telling everyone to pull up a chair and order a drink, because Billie Holiday has a life to sing.”
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” made its premiere in an Atlanta theater in 1986 and debuted on Broadway in 2014, with Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday. The story is set in a run-down South Philadelphia bar during a performance only months before Holiday’s death in July 1959.
She is accompanied by Jimmy Powers on piano, who moves the performance along as she sings and tells stories about her life.
And it doesn’t take the audience long to realize that there would be no songs if it weren’t for the life Holiday lived. She’s candid about the drugs, her early life as a prostitute and betrayals along the way, and the soul in her voice reflects it.
Or, in New Venture’s case, the voice of Lori Payne.
“I knew when we auditioned Lori that she was our Billie Holiday,” Williams says. “It wasn’t just in the way she sang, but in the way she embodied the character.”
Payne is a Louisiana native who worked as a writer, producer, director and actor in New York before moving to Baton Rouge. She learned of “Lady Day” while checking out New Venture’s season schedule and planned only to attend the performance. But then she went a step further by introducing herself at the auditions.
Her mission was to make a connection with the company, but she ended up winning the part of Holiday.
“Billie Holiday is known for so many reasons,” Payne says. “I knew her music, and I appreciate what it did for American music and our history. What I hope to do as an artist is give the audience a glimpse of her humanity. People think of her as an icon, but I want to try to show her as a person.”
In modern times, entertainers can rely on the Internet to track their every move.
“In Billie Holiday’s times, there wasn’t a YouTube or a TMZ, so we don’t know everything about her,” Payne says. “But we have her story.”
And part of that story is her chihuahua, Pepi.
“She carried her chihuahua everywhere, but we have a Shih Tzu puppy for the part,” Williams says, laughing. “He’s been cooperative.”
The puppy will make his stage debut toward the play’s end, after Payne sings such Holiday hits as “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit” and “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness.”
“Since it’s a nightclub setting, we will have drinks available to order,” Williams says. “It’s an intimate evening with a legend.”