When the cast members introduced themselves on the first day of rehearsals for Center Stage's production of "Happy End," actress Pamela Isaacs recalls, "We went around the room, and I said, 'I'm Pamela Isaacs, and I'm playing Billie, er, Lillian, Holiday.' "
It was an understandable slip. The last time Isaacs appeared at Center Stage was in the title role in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" two seasons ago. Now she's back, playing another Holiday -- Salvation Army Lt. Lillian Holiday in the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical "Happy End." Her character, a k a "Hallelujah Lil," is one of the chief savers of souls in this jazz-era musical about gangland Chicago, which opens Wednesday.
As the New York-based actress readily admits, however, there's no danger of her further confusing the two Holidays because these women have little in common.
"The difference is Billie solved her problems with drugs, and Lillian found religion. Her answer was God. I think Billie was very fragile. Lillian is emotionally strong," she explains. "[Lillian] has found a way to channel her energy, whereas Billie didn't do that, except through music."
Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, who is directing the production, describes Isaacs as "a charismatic performer" and "a giving, giving soul." In the role of Lillian, who falls in love with one of Chicago's most dangerous gangsters, the director says, Isaacs "is convincing both as the religious crusader on the one hand, and as the romantic lead -- a woman with a past."
Preparing for the role has been a twofold task. Isaacs, a classically trained singer with a three-and-a-half octave range, hired a vocal coach to help her with the audition material. She was familiar with Weill's music since she used to include one of his songs in her former cabaret act. But she describes his style as "very difficult . . . very complicated rhythmically."
Understanding Lillian's personality involved a different type of preparation. "The first thing I did was go to Macy's during Christmas and watch [the Salvation Army workers]," the New York-based actress says. In particular, she noticed "the severity of their wardrobe and their simplicity -- they're very stark in their needs." Even though "Happy End" takes place in 1919, she realized she could don her costume and almost fit right in today.
On a deeper level, Isaacs, who was raised Methodist, says: "A lot of Lillian's journey had to do with her relationship with Christ. So I went through the Bible and found the passages she quotes and questioned my relationship with God.
"I always find [when] I'm dealing with a character, I have to approach each one with my own sense of truth. She is truly connected with God. He's blessed her with the ability to speak to people and reach them. I'm a very, very spiritual person. I think I'm on this Earth to do what I do because of God."
Of course, Isaacs has greater freedom portraying a fictitious character than she did portraying Billie Holiday -- especially in the town where she grew up. She admits that the prospect of starring in "Lady Day" here "was scary at first," in part because director George Faison originally encouraged her to imitate Holiday's singing voice.
Pain and performance
But she decided, "I can't imitate. Billie was a jazz artist. Her sound came out of her pain, and I thought it was better to connect with that." Sadly, that was a task she had no trouble achieving. A few days before the start of rehearsals for "Lady Day," she attended the funeral of the man she'd been dating for four years, a 35-year-old actor named Ed Battle, who died from a blood clot to the brain.
Although some people might have resisted returning to work so soon, Isaacs says, "People who are in this business are in this because they are artists and are able to share it. People who saw me felt that -- they didn't know what. In that, it was a freeing experience." And, she says, "I know Eddie was there watching me."
Her performance impressed Center Stage audiences, who showed up in record numbers, leading the theater to extend the run. It also impressed the play's author, Lanie Robertson, who made a special trip to see it and sent Isaacs a dozen white roses afterward. The two audience members whose response meant the most to her, however, were her parents, retired educators from California who've slowly accepted the fact that their daughter left the University of Southern California to pursue her theatrical career.
"I looked out, and they were both crying. I'll never forget that," says Isaacs, who adds that she was worried about their reaction to the show's language and drug-abuse scenes. "But my mother said, 'That's not you,' " she recalls, with relief still evident in her voice.
To preserve part of the "Lady Day" experience, she and the four musicians from the production recently recorded a dozen songs from the show, which are now on sale at Center Stage.
Although this is her first recording, Isaacs, who is in her 30s, came close to being on the original cast album of one Broadway show and has a solid shot at a starring role in a new musical expected to open on Broadway next fall.
The one that got away was the all-black revival of the 1926 Gershwin musical, "Oh, Kay!" Isaacs originated the title role -- a singer in aspeakeasy -- at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House in 1989, and she won an award when the show moved to Detroit.
But when producer David Merrick took over the show, she recalls, "They told me they were going to use me if they didn't get a star." The role went to a relative unknown, however. "They didn't even call me," she says.
Acting on faith
Around that time, however, Isaacs met composer Cy Coleman ("Sweet Charity," "Barnum"), who cast her in the lead role of a hooker in several workshop productions of his new Broadway-bound musical, "The Life."
More recently, she has added to the television credits on her resume, which includes a slew of bit parts on various series, as well as a running role as a hard-nosed attorney named Delia Blanchard on "Another World."
Last November, she joined the growing list of Center Stage actors who have appeared on episodes of NBC's "Homicide." Her character, Amanda DeBreaux, is "a history teacher with a strong sense of herself who is introduced to Yaphet Kotto as his love interest," she says. The episode, titled "Nothing Personal," deals with prejudice within the black community and is scheduled to air April 14. She expects it to be controversial.
Isaacs doesn't know what she'll be up to between "Happy End" and "The Life." But ever since moving from Los Angeles to New York eight years ago, she's operated on faith. "All the things that have happened to me and been good have been total faith that it's going to work out. If I thought about it, I wouldn't have done bTC it," she says.
And a few minutes later, she adds, "All those great roles: I'm a hooker; I'm Billie Holiday; I'm a saint -- you can't ask for more!"
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Audio-described performance at 8 p.m. Feb. 28; sign-interpreted performance at 2 p.m. March 25. Through March 26.
9- Call: (410) 332-0033; Tdd: (410) 332-4220