"I've been dead for more than 50 years and y'all are still trying to conjure me up," the character Billie Holiday says early in Diane Tucker's play with music, Billie's Blues.
And Holiday's essence is definitely conjured in the portrayal by Tamara Stovall Peterson in DVA Productions' inaugural show of its first full season.
It's basically a one-woman show, as Peterson segues between Holiday's well-known songs and stories taken from the biography of one of the most important vocalists of the 20th century. It doesn't hurt that this legendary figure had a life of scandal and hurt to go with a brilliant recording and concert career. (Biodramas of squeaky-clean happy people are rarely interesting.)
Two other performers are onstage in the tiny Pantagleize Theatre. One is a narrator character, Donathan (played by a personality-free Tyrone King) who sets up the scene but doesn't have much of a purpose that the Holiday character isn't taking care of, and better. The other is the Piano Man, the accompanist (the first weekend it was a terrific Alejandro Serrano Ayuso; in the second weekend, it will be Tamara's husband, blues musician Lucky Peterson).
But Billie's Blues, directed by Sheran Goodspeed Keyton, is all about Tamara Peterson. She doesn't sound like Holiday -- but who (aside from Madeleine Peyroux) could mimic that aching, soulful whisper? She does, however, nail the phrasing, vocal style and volume levels. More importantly, she feels the music.
To the playwright's credit, the in-between stories (which, true to Holiday, include strong language) don't take a typical biographical and-then-this-happened approach.
She sets up songs like God Bless the Child, Don't Explain, Strange Fruit, 'Tain't Nobody's Business and Good Morning Heartache with candid storytelling about an ungrateful mother, a bad marriage, racism and rumored affairs with the likes of Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead.
As the show goes on, the concert by the ghost of Holiday devolves intro drunken slurring and ends on a gut-wrenching note. Peterson is committed all the way. If only the Donathan character weren't there, this show would be even more riveting.