BWW Review: Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva's Dazzling and Stunning Billie Holiday Can't Be Missed
Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva's miraculous transformation into music legend Billie Holiday may well be the performance of 2017, theater-wise, in a city where we revere and venerate our favorite vocalists. But in Music City, where live theater is often perceived as a mere afterthought by the entertainment establishment, oftentimes performances such as hers may be given short shrift, overlooked by the so-called powers-that-be whose tastes tend toward the middle of the road, pop-infused, sound-like-everyone else, cookie cutter variety of singers.
But let me make this clear: Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva as Billie Holiday is as fine a performance as you could find anywhere - from Broadway to the West End to Chicago, California and all points east, west, north or south. After some 40 years of writing about theater and reviewing shows of every variety, every ilk, every genre, I am here to tell you right now: Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva is a force to be reckoned with and her talent is so substantial that Nashville should thank its lucky stars that she is here, among us. And her performance in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, brought to the stage by Wild CaRD Productions in a revival of the Center for the Arts staging from a few years back, should be seen by each and every person reading this, particularly those who think they know who she is and what her massive talent is all about and everything else that is encompassed within her dazzling starpower.
Am I guilty of exaggeration? No. Am I blowing up the collective skirts of the potential audience within the sound of my words? Nope. Am I still reeling from the power of her performance, experienced some 36 hours earlier? A definite "yes."
While she's gained a reputation for delivering the goods in every onstage performance she's ever been seen in, Jennifer generously shares her talents with audiences at every opportunity. But until now, all those earlier roles have only served as an appetizer for her brave and bewildering, courageous and bold turn as the most notable jazz singer of the 20th century - or ever, more to the point - a woman whose life and career was filled with heartache and disappointment, but who continued singing nonetheless as if she were put on this earth by a God longing to hear the most evocative voice He ever created.
If my reaction to seeing Whitcomb-Oliva as Billie Holiday seems over-the-top - even I admit my words thus far in this review are so effusive as to be rendered unbelievable - I should probably admit that I have struggled for those intervening 36 hours to express just how moving her performance was, how uniquely crafted is her transformation into Lady Day and how completely mesmerizing she was from the very first moment she stepped onto the stage.
Clad in a gorgeous, emerald-green jersey gown with slight ruching on her left hip, with bejeweled cuffs, she looks every inch the star she is charged with portraying. She is, at first, easily recognizable as the Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva we've seen on a wide range of Nashville stages, from Nashville Rep, Studio Tenn, ACT 1 and any of the other local companies lucky enough to have her work with them. Then, she opens her mouth to sing and she instantly becomes Lady Day and the actress is somehow lost, almost unrecognizable, as she shape-shifts into a legend. The transformation is remarkable.
Cetainly, we've all known Jennifer is immensely talented (here's something you may not know: I've known her since she was a very little girl and when I first encountered her as an adult, it was quite some time before I realized she was the same boisterous, beaming child I once knew) since she first stepped onto a stage, but that doesn't prepare you for her Billie Holiday. Not only is her onstage demeanor completely changed, but her voice - that powerful instrument that has been classically trained and which has been heard singing nearly every popular song you can recall - seems channeled somehow, as if Billie Holiday has taken over her soul and body and issuing forth from her mouth are the sounds of the tremendous songstress whose unique gift you imagined was unparalleled.
Every note, every gesture, every movement seems a gift from the heavens and as Whitcomb-Oliva shows us the onstage disintegration of the bravado and panache that Holliday expressed in her heyday, only to see it sapped from her body as her travails continued and the pain that filled her life takes over her very being, the transcendent performance becomes somehow richer, deeper and more heartbreaking. As Lady Day recalls her own influences - Chattanooga-born Bessie Smith is an idol (she pays tribute with a wonderful raucous version of "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)"), as is Louis "Pops" Armstrong and her own beloved, if distant, mother and father (a man she never heard sing due to the mustard gas that burned his lungs in World War I - the war to end all wars that only served as a harbinger of more horrors and atrocities to come) - her reason for being becomes more apparent and Whitcomb-Oliva's performance only becomes more startling, stunning you with its audacity and the actor's commitment to her role.
And when she sings, you will be transported to a different realm, one perhaps unexperienced until that moment. Whitcomb-Oliva closes Act One with a rendition of "God Bless the Child" that is filled with plaintive longing and the unrepressed need for loving contact. In Act Two, she delivers a heart-wrenching version of "Strange Fruit," a song described as "a declaration of war...the beginning of the civil rights movement" and through which Holiday "crafted a relationship to the song that would make them inseparable." If you are not as moved by the song as Holiday's first audiences probably were when they heard it, you are too emotionally stunted to appreciate the power of art.
When Whitcomb-Oliva recounts the prejudice and bigotry that African-Americans, no matter their station in society, were forced to endure, you may find yourself squirming in your seat, your cheeks burning with the shame that every person who has ever treated anyone disdainfully should have ever felt, you hopefully will be enlightened - not just by the history of a movement, a time and place we hoped was long behind us which today seems ever more relevant. Whitcomb-Oliva's tremendous gift of creativity and the ability to bring to life an artist of another era to life is breathtaking. You owe it to yourself to witness it.
Directed by Dave Ragland, this iteration of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill at Brentwood's Towne Centre Theatre through July 29, features Marquan Martin as the dapper and charming Emerson, the bar owner who may be counted among Billie's most loyal friends and fans. Oscar Dismuke and Konson Patton share the role of Jimmy Powers, Billie's supportive pianist and music director, and the remainder of her band includes Darien Phillips and Marcus Reeves on saxophone; Roderickous Coger and Darius Salazar on bass; and David Dismuke and Terrance Bankett on drums.
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. By Lanie Robertson. Directed by Dave Ragland. Produced by Kate Adams Kramer and Patrick Kramer. Stage managed by Deborah Rhodus Arvin. Presented by Wild CaRD Productions at Towne Centre Theatre, Brentwood. Through July 29. Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission). For tickets, go to www.townecentretheatre.com or call (615) 414-0970.