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A Day to Remember

Stages digs into the joy, and the pain, of Billie Holiday's life

When Ella Fitzgerald died last year, one of her many obituaries pointed out that, influential and respected as she was, she was never quite as popular with the crowds as Billie Holiday. The primary reason? She had none of Holiday's on-stage glamour.

There's a truth to that observation, one that probably says more about Holiday than it does about Fitzgerald. There have been few singers this century who could connect with an audience the way Billie Holiday did. She sang about the pain of love and of poverty, and her songs were made all the more compelling by her beauty. In a well-known Life magazine photo taken at the Apollo, the theater where she launched her singing career, Holiday reaches toward her audience, hand outstretched, eyes closed, a spray of pristinely white gardenias pinned in her hair. The picture captures Holiday's grace along with her hard-bitten pain -- the qualities that endure in both her image and her music.

In their production of Lanie Robertson's cabaret-style play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, Stages has crafted an honest and captivating portrait of Holiday. It is not, however, a romantic vision of Lady Day. Set in the last few months of the singer's life, when her dissolution -- due mostly to heroin and alcohol addiction -- became painfully apparent to everyone who came to hear her sing, Robertson's play twines Holiday's narrative together with her songs, moving from the past to the present -- the evening at Emerson's -- in fluid recollection.

Reprising her role from the Ensemble Theatre's production of Lady Day a few years ago, Belinda Simmons plays the tragic end of Holiday's life with a flair for the singer's comic side ("He was the grease on my highway to hell," Lady Day says of a former lover) and a deep understanding of her troubles with men. Simmons's voice is so lovely, and so well tuned for the show's range of songs -- from upbeat Bessie Smith numbers such as "Gimme a Pigfoot" to the more soulful "Them That's Got" -- that it's easy to forget, at least in the beginning, that Holiday's world is crumbling around her.

Transformed into a nightclub with neon signs and a real bar (with real pigs' feet! and, for the less daring, pretzels), Stages's space embraces Simmons with the kind of flatteringly muted light that an aging songstress requires. People love to sit on-stage, and director Carolyn Houston Boone has indulged that desire with four bistro tables that frame Simmons's singing platform. The actress is accompanied by pianist Kenneth Hall, playing the part of Holiday's accompanist Jimmy Powers. Perhaps because his role is primarily non-speaking, Hall's performance as Powers adds a layer of mystery to Lady Day. He cues songs musically, over and over, until Holiday sings them, and keeps a watchful eye on her lapses into storytelling. Their relationship is clearly hostile. Powers has become a high-priced baby sitter who's forced to make a buck by keeping a junkie on track, something he does with a kind of growly patience.

It is Holiday's stories -- made funny, violent and heartbreaking in Simmons's telling -- that leave the audience wanting more. Robertson's play, studded with remembrances of Holiday's relationships with no-good men, tells the tale of a woman whose life became unbearable without the balm of heroin. The first act covers Holiday's impoverished childhood and her rise to fame, along with her subsequent introduction to the world of illicit substances. A poor girl who made it big, Holiday was never as eloquent with spoken words as she was with words she sang, but those spoken words could be highly amusing. One of this production's funniest moments comes during Simmons's portrayal of touring in the South with Artie Shaw's band. Restricted from the dining rooms and hotels of the very establishments she sang in, Holiday occasionally came up with renegade tactics to deal with racist staff members. Her undeniably vulgar coping tactics for ugly situations lend her character a welcome complexity. The lady who sang like a fallen angel could, it turns out, tell a dirty joke with riotous results.

Perhaps the greatest victory in Robertson's version of Holiday's last months is his, and to a larger extent Boone's, unwillingness to soften the ugly edges of the singer's life. During the play's second and final act, it's obvious that Holiday is feeling the effects of her heroin use. She stumbles around the stage, falls on her ass and forgets to finish her songs. The stories keep coming -- her greatest regrets repeated -- but the music starts to fail. As Lady Day realizes the fate predicted in the lyrics she wrote for her mother -- "Them that's got shall get / Them that's not shall lose" -- she is finally lost. The last moments of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill illuminate the singer's final tragedy: the symbolic loss of her voice.

A one-man show -- that strange beast in which standup comedy morphs with the purest form of storytelling -- requires a delicate balance of good source material and an actor whose skills in mimicry and pacing are well calibrated. Talento Bilingue's production of John Leguizamo's Spic-O-Rama delivers on the first half of that equation with the comic script's six-character perspective on a family wedding day. And the actorly part of the deal is handled fairly well by fledgling comic performer Diego Villarreal Garcia.

Leguizamo's show earned respect for honestly drawn Colombian-American characters who were 1) pretty damn funny and 2) not without pathos. Ranging from the irreverent nine-year-old Miggy to the family's patriarch, Felix, Spic-O-Rama slices moments of the past into the story of Krazy Willie's wedding, delivering a package of family history to an audience that becomes accustomed to tragic body blows sneaking up out of the writer's endearingly funny moments.

Director Lidia Porto has cleverly segued the scene breaks with live hip-hop dancers (who knew that ushers and ticket takers could spin on their shoulders?) and a blend of lively Latin music. And Fernando Zamudio and Chip Mantre have transformed Talento Bilingue's spare stage into sections that include a driveway, a bedroom and a Laundromat -- a new and welcome dimension in TB productions.

The play opens with Miggy's science project, a family tree aided by that trusty piece of elementary school equipment, the slide projector. Through the tree we discover that Felix has a number of girlfriends, that brother Willie's fading moment of glory came during his service in Desert Storm and that brother Raphael aspires to all things Caucasian -- blond hair, bland accents and, of course, Shakespeare. Miggy's frustration, however, stems largely from his parents' marital discord, and his own desire to show off his particular brand of hip-hop street dance.

Garcia's interpretation of Miggy is the weakest of the bunch; he's poorly paced and unfocused, despite the strength of the writing. The evening's strongest performance (which is, alas, still marred by cliched drag posturing) comes in Garcia's Gladyz, the family matriarch whose youth was given over to childbearing and whose sense of humor has been nearly choked off by her husband's philandering. Aside from a few twitchy moments, Garcia handles Gladyz with a delicacy that's rare in a young actor.

Like many character-driven works, Spic-O-Rama occasionally wears thin, but the escalating seriousness of the stories, and of Garcia's performance, helps pin the humor to something more substantial. The best comedy offers a gasp of truth, and Garcia plays the weighty moments honestly.

Lady Day atEmerson's Bar & Grill plays through March 16 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220.

Spic-O-Rama plays through March 29 at Talento Bilingue Houston's Cultural Arts Center, 333 South Jensen, 869-8927.

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