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Thomasina Petrus brings the joys and sorrows of Billie Holiday to life at Jungle Theater

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

If you listen to artists, they’ll tell you something that is often convenient for fans to ignore: The process of creation is difficult. It requires an emotional vulnerability that can be exhausting, even if it’s exhilarating at the same time. Few shows capture that dynamic as powerfully as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, now being staged in an utterly absorbing production at the Jungle Theater.

Thomasina Petrus, who stars as Billie Holiday, knows this material intimately. Growing up in Minneapolis, she was inspired by performances of Lanie Robertson’s 1986 classic at the Cricket Theatre (now the Music Box Theatre, on Nicollet Avenue); Petrus grew up to play Lady Day herself at Park Square Theatre. Now she’s revisiting the show under the direction of Marion McClinton, and you’re not likely to find a more detailed, resonant production of this modern classic.

The show is a fictionalized reimagining of a performance in 1959, the year Holiday died. The star is clearly suffering, drinking clear liquor and ultimately disappearing backstage to shoot up. What makes the scenario so poignant is that Holiday’s ability to convey profound hurt was much of what made her a legend. As we learn more about her sorrows, we grow to appreciate the combination of musical genius and personal courage it took to render her truth in song.

Petrus commands her character from the moment we first see her, smoking a cigarette in a dark recess while her trio (pianist Thomas A. West, bassist Ron Evaniuk, and a drummer played on Friday night by Dale Alexander) warm up. Eventually she shows up in a dressing room, visible behind a lacy curtain on Joel Sass’ weathered set. Finally she appears warily onstage as her bandleader strikes up the old favorites he knows will bring her to life.

A life story recounted through onstage banter is a basic music-theater trope, but there was nothing basic about Billie Holiday, and Robertson’s script fascinates because he paints the singer with both great admiration and deep humanity. The play’s quintessential moment may be an anecdote that brings the house down with its uproarious denouement but also evidences the institutionalized racism and sexism that circumscribed Holiday’s life.

Petrus’ performance is a tribute to Holiday, from an uncanny vocal impersonation (this is not a hill to climb if you can’t make it all the way) to a lively portrayal of her deadpan wit. She’s resplendent in costumes by Trevor Bowen, particularly the gorgeously eerie look she wears in the show’s second half, atmospherically lit by Michael Wangen. Sean Healey’s careful sound design places Petrus’ voice at a range of levels, from bold to distant, as she moves about the stage.

Lady Day may seem simple to stage, but this story demands the kind of impeccable attention provided here. It’s an unforgettable show, beautiful and haunting.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Jungle Theater
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-822-7063; through June 24