Billie Holiday had one foot in the grave in early 1959 when her doctor told her she had to give up alcohol or die.
Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, the 44-year-old jazz singer was a shadow of her former self. Her voice was ravaged and bare. Loneliness, bitterness and exhaustion only made the bottle more tempting, and inevitable.
It's around this time of her life that Lanie Roberts' intimate play "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" takes place. Performing to a small audience in a tiny nightclub, Holiday sings a dozen or so of her most familiar tunes while slipping into a drunken reverie.
She reveals some of the more tragic aspects of her biography: being raped at age 10, working as a prostitute alongside her mother, and her frequent encounters with racism while touring in the South.
If anyone has the chops to portray Holiday in Hattiloo Theatre's new staging of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," it's the local jazz and blues singer Joyce Cobb.
Cobb, herself, is a beloved figure on the Memphis music scene, and has played Lady Day once before in a 2004 Theatre Memphis production of the play. Her performance this time around is far more frustrating than illuminating, however.
Jazz standards come second nature to Cobb. She gives clean, straightforward renditions of tunes such as "God Bless the Child" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," evoking Holiday's style of note-bending without trying to impersonate her voice. As Holiday keeps delving into darker territory, her back-up musicians -- the excellent Gerald Stephens on piano and Philip Andrew Joyner III on upright bass -- try to keep the music light-hearted. But the lyrics to "Strange Fruit" and "Foolin' Myself" pull her deeper into despair.
Cobb and director Emma Crystal miss the mark dramatically, however. As Cobb teeters and sways around Ekundayo Bandele's nicely atmospheric set, she mumbles and bumbles through the hour-and-a-half show. Last Saturday's performance was difficult to endure, not because Holiday's tragic last stand is so heart-wrenching, but because Cobb struggled so often to remember her lines.
In this confessional script, the words should flow easily; the songs should be agonizing, as if pestering Holiday to tell her story for what could be the last time. But this production gets it backward. Notwithstanding the lack of polish, Cobb all too easily and confidently dispenses with the music and wrestles with the storytelling.
Cobb isn't without the pathos and intuition one expects from a lifelong performer of jazz classics, and ultimately her effort, while falling short of poignant, amounts to a love letter from one singer to another.
"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 22 at Hattiloo Theatre, 656 Marshall. Tickets are $15-$25. Call (901) 525-0009.