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New Musical ‘Lady Day’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

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Lady Day, the new musical featuring a knockout vocal performance by Dee Dee Bridgewater singing the music of Billie Holiday opened Off Broadway last week at the Little Shubert Theatre. Though the production’s buoyant jazz would undoubtedly be more at home in a cabaret—rather than saddled with a cliché-ridden book by director Steven Stahl—when Ms. Bridgewater opens her mouth to sing, it’s tempting to forget about everything else.

DDflowers300The 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.

DDBand300Act 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.

An acclaimed Grammy and Tony Award winning jazz vocalist, Ms. Bridgewater brings Holiday’s signature bluesy sound to life with a captivating emotional precision. The on stage band, including Bill Jolly (piano), James Cammack (bass), Jerome Jennings (drums), and Neil Johnson (sax) all play wonderfully to match. When Lady Day hands the reins to its gifted musicians, they take command of the room—however out-sized it may be.
 
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: carol rosegg)

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Comments

  1. This is going to be FLAWLESS. Will have to make a trip to NYC from SE Texas soon.

    Posted by: Stephen | Oct 9, 2013 1:46:33 PM


  2. Unfortunate picture up top, with placement of the piano leg appearing to be her leg. Cannot unsee.

    Posted by: Randy | Oct 10, 2013 6:43:23 PM


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