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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
LADY DAY
at the Little Shubert

SWING, LADY, SWING
By BILL STEVENSON

  Dee Dee Bridgewater/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

One might call Billie Holiday "inimitable," but Dee Dee Bridgewater does a mighty fine imitation of the great jazz singer in the musical play (or play with music) Lady Day. The Tony and Grammy winner gives a sensational performance, capturing not just Holiday's signature phrasing and tone but also the pain that went into her music. Lady Day is thoroughly entertaining whenever Bridgewater is singing, with excellent support from a four-man band. But the show is less successful, and at times a bit draggy, when Stephen Stahl's script has Bridgewater recounting stories from Holiday's troubled life.
 
Born Eleanora Fagan to a teenage mother, Billie Holiday grew up in Baltimore and began singing at 13. Lady Day takes place in 1954 in London at the end of a European tour. Holiday lost her New York City cabaret card due to an arrest in Philadelphia and desperately needs to make a good impression at the concert. The first act is the rehearsal, in which Holiday is nervous and edgy. A flashback in the middle has Holiday recalling being raped at age 10, followed by her mother leaving for New York. Bridgewater, who won a Tony as Glinda in The Wiz back in 1975, somehow pulls off this brief glimpse of Holiday as a child. But some of the anecdotes go on too long, and the dialogue for manager Robert (David Ayers) and the band members is mostly flat and extraneous.
 
Lady Day, which Stahl also directed, packs in quite a few songs and offers a nice range of upbeat numbers like "Swing, Brother, Swing" and ballads like "Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)." Act one highlights include breezy renditions of "All of Me" and "Them There Eyes," followed by a more leisurely and exquisite "Lady Sings the Blues." After another flashback, to a tour of the South during the Jim Crow era, Bridgewater delivers a soulful "Strange Fruit." Apparently the subject matter of Holiday's haunting standard – lynching – made some venues ask Holiday to cut it from her act.
 
The second act is the actual concert, and it's nice to see Bridgewater in a sparkling white gown and Holiday's trademark gardenia behind one ear. It seems the singer has knocked back several drinks before show time, so she rambles on drunkenly between songs. It may be accurate that Holiday was often soused on stage, especially late in her career, but Stahl clumsily wedges in more biographical info during these ramblings. Cutting about 15 minutes of dialogue would definitely improve the show, which tries to be both a musical and a biographical play (with mixed results).
 
Fortunately there are more Holiday gems in the second half, and Bridgewater, who won a 2011 Grammy for Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, has the stamina to sing them beautifully. She sounds remarkably like Holiday on the act's opener, "My Man." Her versions of "Mean to Me" and "You've Changed" are also superb. It's a singing marathon, with plenty of acting challenges as well, and the veteran Bridgewater is definitely up to the challenge. 
 
Holiday fans as well as neophytes are sure to enjoy the musical numbers. If only there were a bit less chatter slowing things down in between the songs.

 


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