Many other jazz vocalists had stronger voices and better technique, but it is Billie Holiday we love best. It is complicated—you just have to hear it in her music. Grammy and Tony Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater helps illuminate that Holiday mystique in the musical character study Lady Day (promo here), now running at the Little Shubert.
If you do not already know the basics of Billie Holiday’s life then go hang your head in shame. Like many jazz artists of her era, she had addiction issues, plus her own peculiar talent for getting involved with the wrong men. Despite her headliner status, Holiday’s legal problems caused her cabaret card to be revoked, preventing her from working in New York nightclubs. Robert, her pseudo-manager and indomitable champion, hopes a high profile London concert will lead to an American comeback. Although she fully recognizes the importance of the gig, Holiday is still running maddeningly late for the afternoon rehearsal.
When Holiday finally arrives, she is carrying the full weight of her accumulated insecurities. However, when she gets down to business with her band, the old magic is clearly there: “A Foggy Day,” “Miss Brown to You,” “All of Me,” and “Strange Fruit”—all great. Unfortunately, the audience can see the demons inside her growing restive.
Even with all the fantastic music, many patrons just will not get Lady Day, precisely because it understands Holiday so well. Granted, some of the first act flashback-reveries are a little awkward. Nevertheless, playwright-director Stephen Stahl makes the difficult but ultimately correct choice opening the second act with a gin-fortified Holiday sabotaging the very concert the first act had been building up towards. It is not an easy task for a consummate artist like Bridgewater, but she stays true to character, performing some appropriately ragged renditions of Holiday standards. Yet, when we see her slowly center herself and gut out the rest of the disastrous show, we understand why we love Billie Holiday. It is exactly because of those acutely compelling pyrrhic victories.
Bridgewater has recorded Holiday tributes before and her affinity for the Lady shines through in every song and sequence. She goes beyond merely matching Holiday’s exquisitely vulnerable cadences, exposing her haunted soul. Obviously, she is the front-and-center star, but the quartet nicely backs her up, both musically and dramatically. Led by pianist Bill Jolly, they swing the standards vigorously and sensitively, as the circumstances require, while also convincingly portraying all the subtle backstage (or in some cases, on-stage) frustrations of gigging with Holiday. As thankless as the role of Robert looks on paper, David Ayers also invests him with a surprisingly degree of empathy and presence.
There is talk of moving Lady Day to Broadway, which would be great in many ways, but this show is best seen in as intimate an environment as possible. At times, the audience genuinely feels like it is watching a rehearsal in a nearly empty concert hall. Unlike some previous Swing Era inspired book musicals, Stahl’s production really shows a keen understanding of how to present jazz on stage. Highly recommended for fans of Holiday and Bridgewater (admittedly two sets that probably have significant crossover), Lady Day runs until March 16th at the Little Shubert Theater.
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)