by: Sandi Durell
The tortured, troubled life of drugs, alcohol and bigotry are intermingled in Lady Day at the Little Shubert Theatre on West 42nd Street in this biographical rendering of the latter part of Billie’s life in 1954 when she was performing in London, part of a European tour.
It was a time period where she had lost her cabaret license in New York because of a drug conviction and had no choice but to leave the U.S. and go on the road if she was going to make any money.
The iconic figure is played by Dee Dee Bridgewater (Tony Award Winner and most recent Grammy 2011/Best Jazz Vocal Album – Eleanora Fagan: To Billie With Love From Dee Dee – Eleanora Fagan is Billie Holliday’s real name). There’s no doubt that Ms. Bridgewater is a superb actress and vocalist, capturing the intonations, inflections, husky later sounding Billie as she delivers 25 + Holiday classics. She’s got her down pat.
The scene is set on the stage of the London theatre where Billie is to perform that evening and she is hours late for a rehearsal and arrives in the rain, making up all sorts of stories that are untrue, as her manager Robert (David Ayers) attempts to soothe and comfort her. Her top musicians are ready and waiting to begin – Sunny (piano, Bill Jolly), Deon (bass, James Cammack), Kelavon (drums, Jerome Jennings), Elroy (sax, Neil Johnson). In the mix is assistant stage manager Rafael (Rafael Poueriet) to whom she’s giving the eye.
Billie has battled demons all her life; she is scared, insecure and keeps a flask of liquor in her pocketbook for good measure.
Interspersed in Act I, along with gems ”Give Me a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” “Them There Eyes,” “Lover Man” and Billie’s penned “Lady Sings the Blues,” the concert is interrupted by her tragic memories: raped as a 10 year old child as she enacts the scene calling to her mother who was but a child herself. “Strange Fruit” closes the first act with a re-enactment of the horrors Holiday encountered touring in the deep South. We cringe at the memories.
Act II reveals the concert evening as Billie comes out dressed in a white mink fur and beaded white gown, the gardenia, for which she is known, pinned on the side of her head as she opens with “My Man.” She is obviously drunk, displaying a flask, which she removes from her bodice, proceeding to give a long winding speech about the unhappiness of her life, as she gets silly and hostile.
Herein lie the problems with Stephen Stahl’s script (he also directs), which tend to trivialize the production, making it feel too orchestrated. When Bridgewater sings, it’s pure heaven with tunes like “God Bless The Child,” the irresistible “Good Morning Heartache,” “Billie’s Blues,” “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and more. She’s captured the essence. And that’s the reason why you want to see Lady Day – to see and hear the sensational Dee Dee Bridgewater!
Through Dec. 15th at the Little Shubert Theatre, 422 West 42nd Street, 212 239-6200 – running time: 2 hrs. 15 min. www.ladydaythemusical.com
*Photos: Carol Rosegg