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Blues and bright lights / January 20, 2014
Galyana Esther Castillo doesn’t merely imitate Billie Holiday’s voice and emotional rawness; she channels Holiday’s brilliant but troubled trajectory. She can only, she says, “bring her words to life” with songs and storytelling.

Castillo stars in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a musical drama based on the final performance by the legendary jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday. The show, directed by Chris Jones, closes Saturday night.

Castillo, who first came to The Prizery for Summer Theatre in 2012 (you may remember her in “Cinderella”), garnered rapturous reviews this past weekend for her vocal chops and stage presence. Singing Holiday’s standards is a challenge for anyone: Lady Day was famed not just for her glorious voice but for her utterly unique phrasing that continues to influence pop and jazz.

Castillo pored over Holiday’s autobiography and old videos in preparation.

“I definitely did a lot of research,” she says. But when it comes to singing, “I’m just trying to hint at her style.”

Castillo not only has to nail the songs, she has to single-handedly carry the show with stories and reminiscences. Holiday had a notoriously rough life, beginning with a tumultuous childhood and ending with her untimely death, at the age of 44, brought on by substance abuse. Holiday recounts prostitution, abusive men, and horrific racism.

Castillo shudders recalling her research on how to shoot up heroin.

Despite the heavy content, Castillo says the show is upbeat, often comedic. “You’re definitely going to be hearing her stories,” says Castillo.

Jones says that’s one of Castillo’s strengths: “I have known for some time that Galyana’s voice would be perfect for the role of Billie Holiday, but I have just discovered the depth of her acting ability. She creates all the beauty and tragedy needed to bring Holiday to life once again.”

Castillo manages to project the talent and glamour of Lady Day while seemingly having little in common with the jazz legend: Dimpled and friendly, Castillo, 24, hails from Ocala, Fla., her ancestors from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. (Her grandmother writes on Jones’ Facebook wall in Spanish. “He’ll figure it out,” she told Castillo.) No one in Castillo’s family has a musical or theatre bent, but four years at an arts-intensive high school led her to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, from which she earned a BFA. And her last role couldn’t have been more different from Holiday: She played a preacher’s wife in the musical “Half-Stitched,” in Amish-country summer theatre in Indiana and Ohio. This show at The Prizery may mark the last of her smaller-town gigs – she moves to New York City in February.

Sharing the spotlight with her for “Lady Day” are local musicians Chris Oliver (now commuting in from Richmond) on piano and Robert Anderson of Vernon Hill on a 1934 upright bass. Oliver is also the show’s music director. Ginny Bogart is costume designer, and Ernelle Bellamy is technical director.

Anderson, who typically plays bluegrass and gospel, says jazz is “a stretch” for him because it uses different chord structures and different keys, but that it’s “been a challenge that I’ve enjoyed.”

Due to its mature content, this show is not recommended for children.

The show closes Saturday night. Tickets and dates (which include a Wednesday matinee): 434-572-8339 or

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