Reviewed by Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Lady Day,” the musical currently playing at the Little Shubert Theatre, opens with the band and Billie Holiday’s manager Robert (David Ayers) waiting for the star’s late arrival for the final rehearsal for that night’s concert at a London Theatre. What is an annoyance for the band becomes a treat for the audience when the quartet decides to rehearse “Rhythm Is Our Business,” instantly setting the tone and mood for what is to come. Although these polished musicians are excellent with a well-crafted style and fine technical skill, their performance is no barometer of future proceedings. Enter Dee Dee Bridgewater as Billie Holiday with the energy of a storm, just like the one producing the pouring rain the audience sees through the open loading dock door through which she enters. Her powerful persona, full of false excuses for her late arrival, explores her vulnerability before she decides to face the music, conquer her fears, take charge, and dazzle us with an up tempo version of “A Foggy Day In London Town.” As she continues to rehearse the infused songbook, the audience realizes that it is her instinct and her ear that control the unique phrasing and perfect pitch which has become universally recognizable.
It is when Billie Holiday transcends time and space, intoxicated not only with drugs or alcohol but with the past, that truth bears all and her tortured soul is exposed. When Ms. Bridgewater explores “Lady Sings the Blues” and the haunting “Strange Fruit,” she embodies their spirit with the utmost accuracy of the unresolved painful memories. Sober, this legend was full of fear and rejection yet vocally strong, confident and precise with a dynamic technical prowess. Under the influence she was honest, pure, and deliberate with a soul that connected to the music and a heart that created the tempo. It is truly remarkable that Ms. Bridgewater is capable of capturing the same honest struggle, filled with intense emotion, stunning vocal authority and exquisite tonal quality. She is undeniably brilliant.
In the second act – which is the concert that night – she enters and informs the audience of her intoxicated condition and her intentions of continuing the performance; she also recalls some personal events from her past. Hearing these sometimes tragic tales, the audience’s connection to the endearing “God Bless the Child” and the heart wrenching “Good Morning Heartache” is inevitable. Mirroring her tumultuous life, she brings the audience back up with a wonderful rendition of “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and sentimental “Violets for Your Furs.” It is an intriguing story as each song turns another page and reveals another facet of this jazz legend coined “Lady Day.”
Dee Dee Bridgewater holds nothing back in her tour de force performance as she chooses to become Billie Holiday, never relying on impersonation, rather reaching into her own soul to understand and deliver accurate content, without false interpretation. Musical Director Bill Jolly is outstanding on piano as he leads his extremely talented musicians through an evening of his compelling arrangements. All said and done, this show is all about Billie Holiday and is a must see fitting tribute to the jazz icon that will leave you wanting more.