The subtitle of Carole Alston’s one-woman show, “Tribute to a Blue Lady,” couldn’t be more apt: This is not just another Billie Holiday imitation, but rather, a tribute to her artistry. Alston doesn’t so much reproduce Holiday’s mannerisms as she channels the spirit of the jazz goddess.
Thirteen Holiday classics are interwoven with first-person narration, delivered from a dressing room of the mind on a stage containing only a makeup table, a clothes rack and, in a far corner, a superb six-piece band.
Starting with a childhood in which she was raped at 10 and jailed for prostitution by her early teens, Holiday’s quest for respect and equality is disquieting no matter how many times we’ve heard it. Alston’s nonchalance in relating the nastier episodes only makes them more pungent.
Gratefully, Holiday’s various addictions never becomes the focal point. You barely notice when she first pours a small nip of gin, but soon she’s swigging from the bottle. Long white gloves are added to her costume, and we know it’s to hide the tracks from shooting up.
In a gripping final monologue delivered to her mirror, Holiday notes the irony that whenever she tried to get clean, the people in her life brought her back down (one boyfriend stole her money and then turned her in to the police for drug possession).
Director Cathy Meils peppers the monologues with small, telling details that illustrate Holiday’s inexorable downfall, the gradual erosion of her happy-go-lucky façade: an almost imperceptible hesitation in putting the cap back on the gin bottle; an increasing tendency to perform seated with the mike tilted over, too strung-out to stand. For a fraction of a second just before she sings the first note of “All of Me,” Alston suddenly glances up at the spotlight into which she’s just stepped with a look of horror and confusion, as if it were accusing her.
Alston does a beautiful job with the gradual transformation from inexperienced, gawky kid — seemingly all legs at her first singing gig, startled when the trumpeter takes his solo — to the elegant Lady Day with her trademark white gardenia. The metamorphosis is slow and detailed: her carriage, her knowledge of what to do with her hands, her interaction with the band.
Vocally, she matches the stages of Holiday’s career: the carefree, light approach to uptempo tunes like “Getting Some Fun Out of Life,” the proud defiance of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and the husky, broken tones of her final “Strange Fruit,” dedicated to her father. Charismatic as all hell, Alston can belt like a red hot mamma or lend layers of meaning to “Lover Man” with hersmoky, sensual tone.
While never less than entertaining, the play is secondary, its text at times relying too heavily on cliches as punchlines: “I was looking for love in all the wrong places,” or “This lady was no tramp.” It’s through Holiday’s music that Alston makes the legend come alive.