Lady Day

October 8, 2013 | By | Add a Comment

Little Shubert Theatre  (open run)

Dee Dee Bridgewater as Lady Day

The dynamic Dee Dee Bridgewater has had a celebrated career in theatre, having been acclaimed for a number of memorable shows and roles and garnering a Tony Award for her performance in The Wiz. When she turned her attention to recording, the acclaim was no less noteworthy: as a jazz artist, she’s won three Grammy Awards, the last in 2011. In 2012, she received a Bistro Award for Enduring Artistry for her outstanding body of work. With Lady Day, writer and director Stephen Stahl’s labor of love about Billie Holiday, Ms. Bridgewater has found a vehicle that ideally suits both her theatrical and her jazz strengths.

She worked on this show for some time before its New York opening, and was nominated for an Olivier Award for her performance in the London production. The show takes place in 1954 before (and during) a concert in London. Having lost her license to perform in American clubs because of her legal troubles, Holiday’s success at the concert is crucial to reviving her singing career in the States. Though Bridgewater is now a generation older than Holiday was at that time (about forty), Bridgewater’s natural vivacity makes the age difference a non-issue.

The structure of the piece is serviceable, if lacking imagination: The first act is a rehearsal with the band before the show (for which Holiday, naturally, shows up late); the second act is the concert. Each time Holiday steps away from the band and goes into a monologue, both the writing and Bridgewater’s performance soar. The scenes of her rape as a young teenager, a time in prison, and a moment of coming up against segregation during a tour stop, to name a few, are harrowing and tense. However, dialogue is not Stahl’s strong suit: It does not come across as natural, and banter between Holiday and the band pushes for humor that doesn’t often click. He shoehorns in some of Billie’s stories, such as anecdotes about her longtime musical partner and friend, sax player Lester Young; these anecdotes impart information, but don’t always arise naturally from the character or situation.

Of course, the show provides several opportunities for Bridgewater to sing, and the result is thrilling, both in the uncanny imitation of Holliday’s unique vocal style and the emotion with which Bridgewater imbues the songs.

When Act II opens, Holiday is seen in a sparkling white gown with a white fur draped over her shoulders. The concert has begun, and the scene works because we in the audience feel as if we are watching Holiday in concert at a great London hall in 1954. After her opening song, “My Man” (Jacques Charles, Maurice Yvain, Channing Pollock, Albert Willemetz), she begins speaking to the audience, and we are Holiday’s audience. When she drunkenly stumbles around the stage and starts yelling profanities with racial overtones, we are uncomfortably and nervously watching the sad spectacle, while her manager stands on the sidelines whispering to the musicians about what to do. The way Bridgewater plays this scene, moving from difficult, uncontrollable diva to vulnerable, lost child to an ultimate triumph is a marvel. We, as witnesses, come to understand the fans’ love for Billie Holiday, despite all her personal shortcomings.

Standout songs are Wesley Wilson’s “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” “Them There Eyes” (Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, William Tracey), “Strange Fruit” (Lewis Allan), Holiday’s own “Billie’s Blues,” “You’ve Changed” (Carl Fisher, Bill Carey), and “I Can’t Get Started” (Vernon Duke, Ira Gershwin). Most musical selections follow a bit of autobiographical patter—an effective device. “I’m Pulling Through” (Irene Kitchings, Arthur Herzog Jr.) is a showstopper that has you rooting for the down-on-her-luck singer.

As Holiday’s manager, David Ayers is a capable actor, but with his boyish looks and soft-spoken politeness, the character he portrays seems ill suited to the task of handling Holiday. (Mind you, this might be historically accurate for all I know.) Other roles are assumed by band members Bill Jolly (piano, musical direction, arrangements), James Cammack (bass), the delightful Jerome Jennings (drums), and Neil Johnson (saxophone), and Rafael Poueriet plays the London concert’s Stage Manager.

Beowulf Boritt’s set design is minimal but functional. Patricia A. Hibbert’s costumes fit the period—the white ensemble she designed for Bridgewater/Holiday is a standout. Ryan O’Gara’s terrific lighting adds so much to the stark, dramatic monologues.

The night I attended, Dee Dee Bridgewater received an extended standing ovation at the curtain call. She had carried the show for two hours of singing and intense drama. The ovation was every bit deserved.

Category: Reviews

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About the Author ()

Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.

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