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BWW Reviews: The Unsingable Blues

I wonder: were I to place a gardenia in my hair, could I be as beautiful as Billie Holiday? It's not very likely.

Now, the kind of beauty being spoken about here is not the superficial kind, or the kind that people "think" they see in others in order to offer some great appeal to their characters. Indeed, the way in which the late singer lived her life, and thus the person she became in the interim, left little but her music to serve as an indication of how great she truly was.

No, the beauty that Billie Holiday possessed was the kind that lies deep within a person- the kind which remains even when there is little reason to believe that it still exists. It is the kind which emboldens the souls of people who once loved her to love her still, and that which lived in the gazes and cheers of adoring fans who probably knew so little of the demons that plagued the woman who sang some of the most memorable songs of the 1920's.

Hers is a beauty that needs to be told in the fashion of a story, in a way that both glorifies and pays tribute to a legend while tastefully revealing the gradual downfall and demise of a woman who was so much more than the words she sang.

Beautiful Soup Theater's Shades of Blue: The Decline and Fall of Lady Day is an unconventional, almost chilling ode to Holiday that is careful not to emphasize and dwell upon the singer's musical accolades and success; in fact, it does little to promote her career and the person as seen through the eyes of her adoring public. This production, written and directed by the incredibly talented Steven Carl McCasland (who also founded Beautiful Soup and serves as the group's Artistic Director), wades in the realm of storytelling without the fantastical twist that people always enjoy adding to make their lives seem more interesting - to add drama where drama may sometimes be due.

McCarland, an accomplished playwright, director and actor whose talents can be seen both on and off stage, is responsible for quite a number of plays, including the critically acclaimed play Little Wars (which premiered this past April in New York). Shades of Blue can undoubtedly be added as yet another successful credit to his name.

Shades of Blue is an explanation of Holiday's demise - a story which gives a thorough look at the singer's tragic life and thereby proves just how brilliant a woman Holiday was because of the struggles she endured; it is the story that she so very much deserved to have told.

Billie Holiday was famous for her beautiful music which resonated in the hearts of those who admired her - music to which people still pay tribute to this very day. Songs like "Pennies from Heaven," "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Crazy He Calls Me" made Lady Day an unforgettable jazz icon. What is unique about Shades of Blue is that the show focuses very little on her music and career, but instead portrays a woman whose disregard forlife (whether an involuntary choice of not) caused her being to slip right through her fingers; as she poured herself another drink or shot up in the dark recesses of the stage, her life was gradually no longer her own.

Holiday does all of this with such an air of indifference that the audience fills in as her conscience - the inner voice which is no longer present to prevent her from inching closer and closer towards her death. The singer was typically so high or drunk that her addictions were becoming a major concern of those who cared for her most; while her feelings were numbed by drug and drink, the audience is compelled to feel for her - this tragic figure who, even with the pleas of those who wished her to stop on this path of self destruction, was very much alone. The audience almost serves as a second family, as it cannot help but want to help where no help can really be given.

McCasland's portrayal of the late singer's life can almost be described as brutal in its nature. He does not dart his way around the gritty details of her drug and alcohol addictions, her numerous relationships with women and men in each of the cities she visited, and her inability to escape those demons which plagued her until the very end - one of which was a consequence of her being raped.

No - this is the story of the woman who existed apart from the idolized Billie Holiday, yet shared the same name; this is the double life that was not glamorous or admirable. McCasland is almost ruthless in communicating to the audience just how beautiful Holiday was because of the burdens she was forced to carry throughout her life. This production is able to swoop in and get a firm grasp of Holiday's life, forcing the audience right in the middle of a story already in progress. It comes with the force of reality that is able to make those watching uncomfortable at certain moments, tearful at others and compels a person, after the show has concluded, to reevaluate his or her own life after watching another's deteriorate. The amount of control McCasland executes in the telling of Holiday's story in the course of ninety brief minutes is truly something brilliant.

Essentially, this show is an emotional roller coaster that shows the severity of the singer's addiction and ultimate deterioration in such a raw, tangible way. McCasland is a creative genius for writing a show that can affect his audience in such a way.

What would an amazing show be without an amazing cast? And amazing it truly was. Susanne Froix as Billie Holiday is simply astounding; describing her performances as such might actually be an understatement. Froix is an emotional wreck upon that stage, cussing at whomever it is who tries to steer her away from the wayward path she has been following and thus indicating how badly she just wants to be left alone - she is a caged animal that yearns for nothing than to be freed from the confines of this world. She is just so amazing to watch, as she knows how to navigate her way through each scene and new circumstance, whether it be playing on her desire for the seductive Tallulah Bankhead (played by Kristen Gehling), the distraught being she becomes when her agent Joe Glaser (Orlando Iriarte) attempts to cut off her supply of alcohol or the happy child who begins and ends the show who comes out and shows such potential all watching will know amounts to very little towards the singer's untimely end. Froix is the best person McCasland could have cast to play Billie Holiday, and she did the late singer so much justice in this spectacular portrayal.

Kristen Gehling as actress Tallulah Bankhead is equally as amazing, as both she and Froix basically took over the stage. Between the two of them, there was such energy present that only two confident, talented actors can bring to a performance; each one complimented the other's performance, which was so incredibly admirable and wonderful to watch. Gehling portrays the two sides of Bankhead with such ease. While she attempts to keep her relationship with Holiday in check, she still takes many moments to contemplate how much this woman has affected her; even after her death, Gehling takes such pride in explaining how she adored Billie.

Orlando Iriarte as Holiday's agent, Alana Inez as Laura Big Red Liingstone, Ron Denson as Louis McKay, Bettina Coley Denson as Sadie Fagan, Laurie Sammeth as Dorothy Parker and Somie Pak complete this beautiful cast and make this the fantastic show that it is.

Shades of Blue is an absolutely wonderful show. McCasland should be very proud as both writer and director of this deeply moving play. It is a raw, uninhibited show that provides the audience with an uncomfortable yet poignant experience - one that is truly unforgettable. It is a beautiful, beautiful show.

Shades of Blue: The Decline and Fall of Lady Day began performances on August 27th, and will continue running through September 6th at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater, located at 312 West 36th Street. The performance schedule is as follows: Wednesday (September 3rd) at 2:00 p.m., Friday (September 5th) at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays (August 30th ) at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday (September 6th) at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday (August 31st) at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at Shades of Blue is also running in repertory with What Was Lost, a play about Laurette Taylor, so if you enjoy the story of Billie Holiday and are familiar with McCasland's other works, then you will definitely enjoy this play.

Beauty can truly be found in so many different forms, and Billie's is a soecial one that must be seen to be understood.

Enjoy the show!

Photo Credit: Samantha Mercado Tudda

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