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Billie Holiday's disappearing act

Lady Day's last days at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

Resplendent in a white, strapless dress, Billie Holiday walks up to the microphone as if it were an old friend. But we can tell something is slightly off with her.

With Tracy Conyer Lee's portrayal of Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," the jazz singer comes off as fragile and hesitant even before she launches into a satiny smooth "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone."

That gloss melts off in this play with music running through June 7 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. Holiday's pianist, played by Brian P. Whitted, whom she really leans on, and bassist, played by Phil McArthur, seem to sense Holiday teetering around the abyss as she begins to pick her way gingerly through her set list. Occasionally, the pianist gently has to guide her back on track or snap her out of her reverie when her musings to the audience lead her down a path of no return.

Those battle stories of love, loss and injustice are told with profane earthiness in Lanie Robertson's somewhat overly detailed book. Late in the 80-minute, intermission-free performance, things get a tad tedious. The script strains where it should suggest, pounds when it should touch.

But throughout, Lee is dazzling. She doesn't imitate Holiday, but evokes her languid timing, always lagging just behind the beat. While we can hear that Lee has a mellifluous instrument, she strips it down to Holiday-esque, torchy tones, where a small voice, used with adeptness, can be quite dramatic (something "Lady Sings the Blues" star Diana Ross could appreciate).

"I always wanted Louis' feeling and Bessie's big sound," Holiday explains to us, referring to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

The setting is a mythical bar in South Philadelphia circa 1959, just a few months before her death at 44. Holiday is in a bad way. Heroin has pockmarked her life and led to stints in jail. She's lost her cabaret card and can't perform in New York. Jim Crow haunts her. Onstage, she tells a story of how racism robbed her of her father, and the pain is so overwhelming that she dissolves, speechless for a moment before finally muttering the opening lines of "Foolin' Myself" and then zipping into "Somebody's on My Mind."

And so it goes. Holiday's memories conjure up her songs. When she talks about her mother, she decants "God Bless the Child." A rather longish yarn about humiliation in a Southern dinner club leads to "Strange Fruit,' a dirge about lynching.

The reopening of that wound sends her offstage to self-medicate. Whitted, who also serves as the show's musical director, fills in for a while before Holiday returns, frazzled and frayed. After a blowzy "T'aint Nobody's Business if I Do," she comes apart in the middle of "Don't Explain." It's not a melodramatic meltdown, mind you, just cracks in the porcelain that split wider and wider until she can't go on. That ending, the velvet-gloved work of director J. Barry Lewis, is cinematic and breathtaking. The last theatric flourish leaves you with an image that lingers for days.

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" is running through June 7 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. select Sundays; with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $62 (students $10). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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