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Victor Victorious

Girls are boys at The Club; Lady Day sings at Hattiloo.

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"A gentleman is any man who wouldn't hit a woman with his hat on."
— from The Club

Ann Marie Hall is fearless. It's a trait that works for her as a comic actor and one that's also evident in her confident work as a director.

"We're not just sexist [in this show], we're racist too," she recently boasted as actors and stagehands flitted in and out of TheatreWorks' lobby before the final dress rehearsal of The Club, an unjustly obscure musical revue compiled by poet Eve Merriam.

Typically, this pairing of sexism and racism isn't the sort of thing a director likes to brag about, but nothing is typical about The Club, a subtle drag show that showcases an ensemble of female performers impersonating men of wealth and power. The title refers to gentlemen's social clubs at the turn of the 20th century, where privileged males of Anglo extraction could escape from the grind of work and family to gamble, drink, and conduct their private affairs. More broadly, it alludes to white male privilege exemplified by the show's vintage rhymes, jokes, and un-self-conscious period songs, like "String of Pearls," "Following in Father's Footsteps," "Ticker Tape," and "Pinky-Panky-Poo," which is every bit as weird and naughty as it sounds.

The Club is subtitled "a musical diversion," and on the surface, it would appear to be feather-light. It's also an especially difficult satire with almost nothing in the way of a traditional narrative to move the action forward. Merriam has chosen instead to let the artifacts she's collected speak for themselves, and, for the most part, they do exactly that. One brief, and devastatingly acted, melodrama does unfold at the very end of the show when it's revealed that a club member's third wife has been fooling around with his bachelor pal. Eyebrows up!

Hall's cast, led by a convincingly tall Sally Stover (in an equally convincing glue-on mustache and sideburns set), is uniformly excellent with standout performances by Mary Buchignani, Ruth Johnson, and Stacey McFadin as Johnny, the club's tirelessly tap-dancing valet.

Through January 29th

Diversion-seeking patrons who attend Hattiloo Theatre's production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill thinking they'll hear Joyce Cobb tell blue stories and croon smooth covers of favorite Billie Holiday tunes will be sucker-punched and quite possibly knocked out (in the very best way) by the erratic singing and bitter ranting of a tired, beat-down junkie making her provocative and, ultimately, pathetic last stand.

Casting Cobb as Holiday — a role she's played before at Theatre Memphis — seems like a bad publicity stunt designed to pile name recognition on top of name recognition. The former is a versatile and buttery voiced singer who can lay down scat like Ella Fitzgerald. The latter is a uniquely gifted blues vocalist known more for her emotional delivery and her slurred, cornet-like phrasing than her range. It's a case where neither artist's sound would seem to be especially well served by the other's talents, but here's the surprise: It's not Cobb's excellent, if not especially Holiday-esque singing that makes this show a must-see. It's her acting.

Holiday's life was hard and relatively short. She never really knew her alleged father, and her mother — who was only 13 years old when Billie was born — could only provide limited stability. As a child, the singer was molested. As a teenager, she worked in a brothel. And throughout her life, her relationships with men were as abusive and debilitating as her relationship with liquor and heroin.

There's a subgenre of sentimental musical biographies about popular artists who died young. Always ... Patsy Cline and Hank Williams: Lost Highway are two examples that local audiences are probably familiar with. Lady Day is not this kind of show. Not in the hands of director Emma Crystal who has embraced the "Lady Sings the Blues" tragedy of it all and staged a convincing portrait of an addicted singer at the end of her rope. The only thing more bracing than listening to Holiday moan "Strange Fruit" is watching Cobb's Holiday shake herself from a heroin stupor to tell the story of how she once urinated on a white woman's shoes after being told she couldn't use the whites-only bathroom at a club where she was performing. This is just before plowing headlong into "Strange Fruit" in a style that's more homage than imitation.

Through January 22nd

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