Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lady Day

The songs are there, but the singer who made them famous isn’t. Billie Holiday is long dead, of course, but I didn’t encounter much of her spirit in Lady Day, starring Tony and multiple Grammy Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater as the late, legendary jazz artist in the newly revised biographical play at the Little Shubert Theatre.

This isn’t what I expected. Before this New York debut, Lady Day, written and directed by Stephen Stahl, was produced at the Theatre de Boulogne-Billancourt and Theatre du Gymnase Marie Bell in Paris, as well as The Donmar Warehouse and The Piccadilly Theatre in London, where it received critical praise and earned an Olivier nomination for Bridgewater. (She won a Tony in 1975 for her role as Glinda in The Wiz.) But the show wasn’t believable to me or my friend Colleen, in spite of the fact that Bridgewater won the 2011 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee." (Eleanora Fagan was Billie’s birth name.)

With that background, Billie’s soul should have ruled the stage. Could it have been an off night for Bridgewater? I had been scheduled to see the the show last week but was reassigned because she was out suffering from exhaustion. From what I saw this week, the play -- or at least the spoken parts -- seemed to be suffering from exhaustion. It had the feel of one of those shows that’s been around for years, through multiple cast replacements, that limps along on its former reputation. The theatre was at least a third empty, adding to that feeling.

The biggest problems are with Stahl’s direction and script. He follows a typical biographical play form in which the character talks about her life, either to other characters or the audience -- in this case both -- to give background, then sings, then talks some more, with flashbacks thrown in. Unfortunately, Lady Day’s flashbacks don’t work. Stahl has Bridgewater reenact them, which is awkward at best, especially in the case of her being raped at 10. Seeing an adult woman trying to portray this horrible episode reminded me of someone trying to give a clue during a game of charades. These scenes, in the first act as Billie is rehearsing in a London theatre in 1954, rob the show of the emotional impact it should have in Act Two when a drunk Billie takes the stage for that night’s concert. I wasn’t involved with Billie as I should have been.

The evening would have been far better had the play been scrapped and Bridgewater allowed to just sing Billie Holiday’s songs, which she does nicely. The show includes more than two dozen of the standards Holiday made famous, including "Don't Explain," "Good Morning Heartache," "A Foggy Day (In London Town)," "Them There Eyes," "Strange Fruit," "My Man," "God Bless the Child" and "Mean to Me."

Bridgewater looks the part in Act Two in a shimmery gown, white mink stole and Holiday's signature gardenias in her hair (costumes by Patricia A. Hibbert). But too often in between numbers she addresses her audience to tell stories of her life; the one about being arrested in Philadelphia rambled on far too long. When she wasn’t singing, I was quite often bored.

A concert rather than a play also would be far better for the musicians -- Jim Cammack on bass, Neil Johnson saxophone, Jerome Jennings drums and Bill Jolly piano (he is also the musical director) who are onstage with speaking roles. As musicians they are fabulous, as actors, not so. But then the script leaves them little to work with. They are “cats” and sound like a 1940s wholesome, flat movie version of band members.

David Ayers plays Robert, Billie's manager, and in the role usually played by Rafael Poueriet, Jorge Cordova was the assistant stage manager the night I was there.

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