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Dee Dee Bridgewater mesmerizingly channels Billie Holiday in Lady Day, the new off-Broadway musical about the legendary singer. It’s too bad, then, that the veteran Grammy Award-winning singer couldn’t have also channeled a more compelling theatrical showcase for her vocal and acting talents than this rickety combination of bio-musical and concert written and directed by Stephen Stahl.
The show’s tired conceit is similar to another recent musical spotlighting a long gone, emotionally troubled musical icon: End of the Rainbow, about Judy Garland. Set in 1954, its first act has Holiday rehearsing on the stage of a London theater for a concert she’s to give that night. In between sporadically launching into song, she banters with the members of her four-piece band, as well as her long-suffering manager Robert (David Ayers) and an assistant stage manager (Rafael Poueriet). Her delivery of trademark songs like “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)” are interrupted by reminiscences about such things as her close relationship with jazz great Lester Young and, more disturbingly, her memory of being raped as a child. The latter is accompanied by a mimed reenactment that vividly showcases Bridgewater’s acting chops, as does a segment involving prejudice in the Deep South that inevitably leads to a rendition of “Strange Fruit.”
Things are somewhat less stilted in the second act depicting the ensuing concert, in which Bridgewater, now clad in a gorgeous white fur stole and sequined dress and sporting Holiday’s trademark gardenia in her hair, delivers stirring versions of such classics as “My Man,” “God Bless the Child,” “Don’t Explain” and “Good Morning Heartache.” But here, too, the script has her periodically delivering pathos-filled, drunken monologues about her troubled life and career, including her anguish at having lost the cabaret license that would allow her to perform in New York City.
Bridgewater, who won a 2011 Grammy for her Holiday tribute album, beautifully manages the delicate balancing act between delivering an outright impression of the singer and infusing the material with her own style. She expertly suggests Holiday’s trademark husky vocals and occasional slurred diction, while at the same time providing swinging, jazzy intonations that are very much her own.
It’s a bravura performance, both musically and dramatically, made more impressive by the fact that she’s convincingly playing a character nearly a quarter-century younger. But it’s stuck in a hopelessly stilted and contrived vehicle that pales in comparison to such previous dramatic treatments of the singer as the film Lady Sings the Blues and the oft-produced stage musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Venue: Little Shubert Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Dee Dee Bridgewater, David Ayers, Rafael Poueriet
Director-playwright: Stephen Stahl
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Patrick A. Hibbert
Lighting designer: Ryan O’Gara
Sound designer: Jason Crystal
Presented by Misty Road Productions, Thomas Gentile
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