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Gottlieb, William P. “Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947.” Wikipedia Commons.

How does one capture the sound and mystique of American jazz legend Billie Holiday? Host Dianne Donovan has some insights from the post-performance chat that she led with star Chanel and Director Michael Rader of  ZACH Theatre’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” last Wednesday, April 12.

Chanel was given the honor and responsibility of playing one of the most iconic and, arguably, tragic jazz singers in the Austin premiere of Lanie Robertson’s work. And though there are musicians on stage with Chanel, along with audience members seated at tables “at Emerson’s,” this is virtually a one-woman show.

The New Orleans native came to this role with vocal chops to burn, seven albums to her name, and two Grammy nominations. In a post-performance conversation, she conceded that she had to alter her “big voice.” When asked how she got the specific sound, Chanel replied, “A spoonful of peanut butter and a shot of whiskey!”

That seemed to be the easier part of the equation. “Finding the balance” between delivering the songs “authentically” and portraying the character of “Lady Day” was the real challenge. Chanel admitted that she hasn’t done much acting prior to taking on this emotionally draining, marathon role. On opening night, she did a masterful job. In her performance one week later, she had fallen deeper into the character of Billie Holiday. Chanel effortlessly narrated her life: the difficult childhood; the racism that surrounded her; the bad relationships; and, of course, her alcohol and drug abuse, which brought her too many "highs"--and only served to magnify the lows.

On this note, Chanel tossed the credit to NYC-based Director Michael Rader, saying that his direction was “razor sharp.” In fact, it was so finely tuned that he’d tell her to “pull back” or "increase” intensity by mere degrees.

Indeed, the staging and the gorgeous set made you feel that you were in that nightclub only months before Billie Holiday’s untimely passing. The band was top-notch and one could feel the camaraderie that Billie would have had with her own band.

When asked if this role was “life-changing” Chanel answered with an emphatic sigh. “Yes,” she said. “Every night, I am changed and I discover something else, a different way to phrase something.” This may not be only life changing but career changing for this already accomplished star!

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” has been extended through June 11, 2017 at the Kleberg Theatre. More information is available here.