New Musical ‘Lady Day’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
The show is set late in Holiday’s career, on the opening night of her London concert on the West End in 1954. Having lost her cabaret card (necessary accreditation to perform in New York City clubs) due to drug related criminal charges, Holiday has been touring Europe in the hopes that winning popular acclaim abroad may help her chances of getting it back.
Act one finds Holiday rehearsing on stage with her talented band of musicians on the afternoon of her first London performance, the tour’s final stop. As if conscious of his strained effort to inflate what is essentially a jazz medley into a stage musical, Stahl’s book includes repeated references to Billie’s nerves about the size of the theatre.
Here is a creature of smoky, intimate jazz clubs, thrust up into the spotlight where she feels distant and isolated from her audience. Though Ms. Bridgewater is certainly up to the task of filling the (not so) Little Shubert with her vocal performance, Stahl’s writing doesn’t quite do the same when the music stops.
Between songs Billie falls into reminiscences of her painful childhood. Alternately addressing no one in particular, unseen characters from her past, and herself in the second person (‘Billie, baby, remember that time?’), she tells of her rape at the hands of a family neighbor, abandonment by both parents, and painful racial prejudice she experienced in the Jim Crow south. While they help reveal emotional scars behind her anguished voice, Billie’s stories in the first act unfold with little dramatic logic and only tenuous connection to one another.
Act two more comfortably soars on the power of Ms. Bridgewater’s vocals, with Billie (however drunkenly) in her element—on stage for her opening night and finally playing directly to the audience. Here Billie’s colorful stories are somewhat more thrilling—a legendary performer unraveling and spilling her dirty secrets to a live audience, rather than to an empty rehearsal room.
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