Review - Bridgewater Sublime in Cliché-Ridden LADY DAY
While the opportunity to hear jazz great Dee Dee Bridgewater sing a couple dozen selections from the Billie Holiday catalogue is certainly an enticing way to spend an evening, the dramatic vehicle that drives the music, Lady Day, is a clunky collection of clichés.
Written and directed by Stephen Stahl, Lady Day follows a familiar pattern. Music legend toward the end of her career is hours late for rehearsal... She's difficult to work with, but brilliant... A flashback to her horrific childhood... She appears on stage drunk for an important performance and begins embarrassing the audience... But she somehow pulls herself together in time for the upbeat finish. Curtain.
The details in this case are that it's late 1954, less than five years before her death, and Holiday is nearing the end of a European tour that she hopes will earn her a chance to have her cabaret license reinstated. Cabaret licenses used to be required in order to perform in venues that served alcohol and Holiday's was revoked after a drug bust. (Stahl has her insisting she was set up for refusing to omit the controversial "Strange Fruit" - with a lyric describing southern lynchings - from her set list.)
The first act has her rehearsing for the evening's show at an unnamed West End theatre, accompanied by musicians played by Bill Jolly (music director/arranger/pianist), James Cammack (bass), Jerome Jennings (drums) and Neil Johnson (sax). The quartet makes up a fine jazz ensemble but they're definitely not actors.
In his role as the assistant stage manager, Rafael Poueriet is on stage solely to be the target of the star's leering advances and David Ayers' responsibilities as Holiday's manager are limited to attempts to keep everyone focused.
But it's not about the guys.
Act II opens with a sloppy-drunk Billie Holiday making her way through "My Man" before going off script to accuse her London fans of regarding her as, "just a n- who happens to sing." When her manager tries to gently get her off stage, she teases him by trying to take another swig out of her flask.
(An Internet search found no accounts of the real-life Billie Holiday ever being noticeably drunk in front of audiences; just a Los Angeles Times review of a 1989 production of the play where critic Leonard Feather writes that he was the organizer and emcee of that tour and never saw her try to perform in that condition.)
Despite the overstated, history-stuffed dialogue that sounds more like Wikipedia quotes than conversation and a particularly embarrassing flashback monologue where Holiday reenacts her childhood rape, Bridgewater does an excellent job conveying the fear and determination of a brilliant artist fighting for her professional life while battling personal demons.
The songs you expect to hear ("A Foggy Day" "Lady Sings The Blues" "All Of Me" "Mean To Me") are all there, though in the context of the character being in rehearsal or performing under the influence we often don't get full out, full length performances.
Fortunately, "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless The Child" are both presented in manners that allow for enrapturingly sensitive performances. Her "Lover Man" is sumptuous and tingle-inducing and there's a fun scat section for "Them There Eyes."
What's most impressive about the star's performance is that while she gives an accurate replication of Holiday's timbre and phrasing, she never seems trapped in an impersonation. Instead she proves herself a skilled actress who, particularly through the music and lyrics, offers a far more satisfying exploration of her subject than her playwright.
Dee Dee Bridgewater's sublime vocals are the only reason to take in a night at Lady Day, but a more competent showcase for her extraordinary talents is absolutely in order.