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A CurtainUp Review
Lady Day
"Tonight you have the chance to change everything. Just stay sober. Don't let them old demons take you down! Face them; it's not as scary as you might think."— Robert
Lady Day
Dee Dee Bridgwater (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's 1954. A four-piece band is having a concerted anxiety attack while rehearsing on their own in preparation for a concert featuring Billie Holiday on the stage of a London theater. Why? Because Holiday is two hours late.

Also concerned is Robert, the stage manager and Holiday's friend, commendably played without any idiosyncratic affectation by David Ayers. Robert wants things to go smoothly for Holiday. This concert is the culmination of a long European tour planned after her cabaret card/license to work in the USA was revoked after she was convicted and jailed for the possession and use of heroin.

Known affectionately and familiarly as Lady Day, Holiday is celebrated as one of the great, now legendary, jazz vocalists of the mid 20th century. Many performers have played Holiday in various screen and stage versions of her life and career, as well as specifically in Stahl's play various revised revisions of which have been making the rounds for the past thirty years.

We can see that it's pouring outside as Holiday (Dee Dee Bridgwater), wearing a red taffeta dress, a gold cross around her neck and with her hair pulled taut into a long pig tail a la Josephine Baker, careens through the door of the back brick wall of the stage (traditionally evoked by designer Beowulf Boritt). She shakes off her umbrella, but can't turn off her motor-mouthed blather that makes us wonder, despite her excuses, what it is that she's "on" and if she can rehearse at all.

How appropriate that an up-tempo "Rain Rain Go Away," does the trick to bring her around. It also serves as the beginning of very poignant personal story within a wildly careening play. Despite her own misgivings about the theater being "too big" Holiday is able to miraculously pull herself together. Somewhat untypical of the Holiday who has been either filmed or recorded are the extra lively tempos taken with such early songs as "A Foggy Day," and "All of Me." A rather nice touch is an abbreviated Lindy that Holiday does with Robert to "Swing Brother, Swing."

Act I inevitably gets serious and with more hints at the Holiday we want to acknowledge, as she sits on the piano recalling her relationship with the great jazz saxophonist Lester Young and sings a heartfelt "Lady Sings the Blues." The spirit of Holiday comes through Bridgwater even stronger with "Lover Man," but most movingly with "Strange Fruit."

Bridgewater, who won a Tony Award for playing Glinda in The Wiz and a Grammy for her Best Jazz Vocal Album for Eleanor Fagan : To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, is terrific when she is channeling the essence of the Holiday style. I also liked the way she slowly evoked the mellow, unforced jazzy intonations that we identify with Holiday without sounding like an impersonation.

She has a more difficult time to bring immediacy to Holiday's ever-tormenting memories though she manages to make it credible. These memories are triggered during rehearsals and used as dramatic breaks between songs. The well-worn device is a bit trite, but, even under Stahl's over-heated direction they serve as compelling narrative bridges for those who may still need the back story.

The lighting (good work by Ryan O'Gara) blots out everything but Holiday as she is catapulted back to a terrible childhood, enacting being raped and reliving her horrifying confrontations with racism during a Southern tour. "Just stay sober," is Robert's plea to Holiday as her insecurities have begun to envelope her.

"All I wanted to do was sing," admits Holiday to the audience during the actual concert that comprises Act II, although we see the unhappiness of a desperately lonely woman exposed in fits and starts. Nevertheless looking gorgeous in a shimmering white gown and with her swept up hair accessorized with the signature white gardenia, she is obviously tipsy. She unconscionably berates the audience with some rather raw language as she segues into a rambling confessional.

Bridgewater is expected to extract more from these monologues than they can rightfully support. Many of the video and projection enhanced digressions into the past seem gratuitously integrated. It is primarily when we hear Bridgewater stake a personal claim on such Holiday classics as "My Man," "God Bless the Child," "Mean to Me," that we are in true report with the legend.

It is a nice touch for the superb musicians (see credits)to have character names and to speak lines. Rafael Poueriet, who plays the Assistant Stage Manager, is good and good-looking enough to catch the eye of Holiday as he works on the lighting bridge.

For all the pain and sorrow with which she was afflicted, Holiday will always be admired for her unique styling of the blues as with "When I'm singing the blues, I'm living in that color." Bridgewater is definitely living in that color at the Little Shubert Theater.

Aside from its earlier incarnations, this is the first New York production of Lady Day. This "newly revised" version was previously produced at the Theatre de Boulogne-Billancourt and Theatre du Gymnase Marie Bell in Paris as well as the Donmar Warehouse and the Piccadilly Theatre in London.

Lady Day
Written and Directed by Stephen Stahl

Cast: David Ayers (Robert), Rafael Poueriet (Rafael), Bill Jolly (Sunny, Pianist), James Cammack (Dion, Bassist), Jerome Jennings (Kelavon, Drummer), Neil Johnson (Elroy, Saxophonist), Dee Dee Bridgewater (Billie Holiday).
Set Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Patricia A. Hibbert
Lighting Design: Ryan O'Gara
Sound Design: Jason Crystal
Video/Projection Design: Dive
Musical Director: Bill Jolly
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
The Little Shubert Theatre, 422 West 42nd Street
(212) 239 - 6200
Tickets: $85.00 and $95.00 plus a $2 facility fee.
Performances will be Tuesday at 7PM, Wednesday at 8PM, Thursday at 7PM, Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 2 & 8PM, and Sunday at 3 & 7PM.
From 09/19/13 Opened 10/03/13 Closing 1/05/14 Box Office Hours
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/01/13
Musical Numbers
Act One
Rhythm Is Our Business (Music by Saul Chaplin & Jimmie Lunceford / Lyrics by Sammy Cahn)
  • Rain Rain Go Away (Words and Music by David Mack, John W. Green, Edward Heyman)
  • A Foggy Day (In London Town) (Music by George Gershwin / Lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
  • Swing, Brother, Swing (Music and Lyrics by Lewis Raymond / Walter Bishop, Sr. / Clarence Williams)
  • Miss Brown To You (Music by Ralph Rainger and Richard A. Whiting / Lyrics by Leo Robin)
  • Give Me A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer) (Music and Lyrics by Wesley A. Wilson)
  • All Of Me (Music and Lyrics by Gerald Marks and Seymour B. Simons)
  • Them There Eyes (Music by Maceo Pinkard and Doris Tauber / Lyrics by William Tracey)
  • Lady Sings The Blues (Music and Lyrics by Billie Holiday and Herbert Nichols)
  • Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be) (Music and Lyrics by Jimmy Davis / Roger J. Ramirez / James Sherman)
  • I Want To Be Your Mother's Son-In-Law (Music by Alberta Nichols / Lyrics by Mann Holiner)
  • Strange Fruit (Music and Lyrics by Lewis Allan) (Reprise) A Foggy Day (In London Town) (Music by George Gershwin / Lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
  • Act Two
    • My Man (Music by Jacques Charles and Maurice Yvain / Lyrics by Channing Pollock and Albert Willemetz)
    • I'm Pulling Through (Music by Irene Kitchings / Lyrics by Arthur Herzog Jr.)
    • God Bless The Child (Music and Lyrics by Billie Holiday / Arthur Herzog, Jr.)
    • Good Morning Heartache (Music by Dan Fisher and Irene Higginbotham / Lyrics by Ervin M. Drake)
    • Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone (Music by Sam H. Stept & Bee Palmer/ Lyrics by Sidney Clare)
    • T'ain't Nobody's Bizness (Music and Lyrics by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins)
    • Billie's Blues (I Love My Man) (Music and Lyrics by Billie Holiday)
    • When You're Smiling (Music by Mark Fisher and Larry Shay / Lyrics by Joe Goodwin)
    • What A Little Moonlight Can Do (Music and Lyrics by Harry M. Woods)
    • Mean To Me (Music by Fred E.Ahlert / Lyrics by Roy Turk)
    • You've Changed (Music by Carl Fischer / Lyrics by Bill Carey)
    • I Can't Get Started With You (Music by Vernon Duke / Lyrics by Ira Gershwin)
    • Violets For Your Furs (Music by Matt Dennis / Lyrics by Thomas Adair)
    • (Reprise) I'm Pulling Through (Music by Irene Kitchings / Lyrics by Arthur Herzog Jr.) (Reprise) Swing, Brother, Swing (Music and Lyrics by Lewis Raymond / Walter Bishop, Sr. / Clarence Williams)
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