At the end of Joey Arias’ opening night sold-out performance of his Billie Holiday Centennial Concert at the REDCAT, the audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation. The collective seal of approval brought to mind the chillingly brilliant observation made by Fran Lebowitz in Public Speaking, the 2010 Martin Scorsese directed HBO documentary about her. She tells him, “No one talks about it anymore, but when people did talk about [the cultural devastation wrought by AIDS,] they talked about what artists were lost, but they never talked about the audience that was lost…. There was such a high level of connoisseurship of everything… That made the culture better. A very discerning audience, an audience with a high level of connoisseurship, is just as important to the culture as artists. It’s exactly as important. Now, we don’t have any kind of discerning audience.”
The crowd’s rapturous response to Arias’ bafflingly unfocused and often simply awful performance was proof of Lebowitz’ argument.
The night began promisingly. Arias entered from the wings wearing an all-black outfit, including a diaphanous wrap that looked like a spider’s web when he spread his arms, balancing on sky-high stilettoes, and sporting Holiday’s trademark gardenia behind one ear. Backlit so that we only saw him in outline form, the gardenia being the one easily discernible component of his outfit, he kicked off the set with “Don’t Explain.” Immediately apparent was the sublimity of the backing band – Matt Ray (piano), David Piltch (acoustic bass), Robert Perkins (drums), Maiani da Silva (violin), and Isaiah Gage (cello). Ray, the music director, smoothly led the troupe through paces that fused virtuosity and nuance, deftly navigating uptempo tracks, like an especially swinging “Them There Eyes,” and somber musical landscapes.
The problem was Arias, who is decades deep in his homage to Holiday. There’s no doubt that he captures something of her idiosyncratic approach to the lyric – coming in behind the beat, keeping the listener on her toes by refusing to swim easily into the melody, bending and ending notes in left-of-center phrasing and enunciation. He caught the slivered, fractured tone that gives Holiday’s most measured and assured performance a knife-to-the-heart quality. But he also interjected non-stop hiccups, squeals and yelps – often at wildly inappropriate moments – as he made his way through the Holiday songbook. He was obvious and on-the-nose in his accompanying physical gestures, which quickly lapsed into caricature. Mid-way through “Strange Fruit,” he bent at the waist and sobbed, more affected than affecting, and at dire odds with the cool composure of Holiday’s gut-wrenching take on the anti-lynching song, which is exactly what makes it so devastating. That was only the most egregious example of his often overwrought spin on the material.
Throughout the show, he turned Holiday’s speaking drawl into a mush-mouth parody played for cheap laughs, turning her into a familiar figure from old-school gay culture’s piano bar/nightclub drag queen performers: the bawdy, blowsy, boozy figure alternately combative and flirtatious with her audience. Two or three times he hiked his skirt to reveal his garters; a couple of times he squatted and spread his thighs, flashing the crowd. He vamped diva-style for the camera phones of audience members filming him. It wasn’t so much breaking character as performing an unfocused mish-mash of a character that has nothing at all to do with anything at all about Holiday.
It’s understandable that, after so many years of performing Holiday’s songs in Holiday drag, he might be a bit bored with his subject, somewhat on cruise-control. And no one would want to see a show in which the iconic jazz singer is performed from behind a veil of entombed reverence. That wouldn’t do justice to the tough, earthy, funny, no-bullshit woman Holiday really was (and who has gotten buried beneath the pure victim guise in which she’s been shrouded.) A concert in which the undeniably vocally gifted Arias simply sang Holiday’s songs, letting his propensity to belt (Holiday was no belter) or let fly his more conventionally technically powerful voice, might’ve been a better option. He could still slip in the Holiday-style tics and flourishes, of course, but it wouldn’t seem such a frequently grotesque interpretation of the Lady and her music when he lapses into whatever the hell that was he was doing opening night.
Joey Arias is performing at the REDCAT through Sunday, November 22. All shows are sold-out.