For a city with a centuries-old reputation of unbridled nightlife, New York’s relationship with live entertainment has been often testy, and few performers have more famously tested the city’s standards than the drug-addicted convicted criminal Billie Holiday. After a 1947 conviction for drug possession the city stripped the inimitable singer of her cabaret card, a license to perform publicly which entertainers had to possess from Prohibition until the year of the Summer of Love. (Though the card is a thing of the past, the city still requires venues to hold expensive cabaret licenses to allow dancing on the premises.)
In Lady Day, a sparkling tribute to the queen of jazz singers written and directed by Stephen Stahl and centering on Dee Dee Bridgewater’s bravura double-threat performance, Holiday is pushing 40 and still barred from singing in the Big Apple (though in fact she’d flouted the restriction). She and her band are preparing for a performance in London, but the quintessential nightclub singer isn’t comfortable in a large concert hall. It’s a convincing conceit in the Little Shubert Theatre, which isn’t little at all.
During the rehearsal we see in the first act, rain pours down outside while Holiday’s four-piece band and their manager (David Ayers) await a very late star. Beginning with her explanation for her lateness, and continuing through interludes of childhood reminiscence, Bridgewater-as-Holiday then presents a capsule biography between short versions of many of the songs Holiday made famous (along with a few a bit more obscure). In the second act we see the performance itself, during which a drunk Holiday nearly falls apart but ultimately gathers her wits and delivers triumphantly.
As in the rehearsal, the abridged arrangements left me sometimes wishing for longer versions of these classic songs. (The lineup includes “All of Me,” “Lover Man,” “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning Heartache,” and “Strange Fruit” to name just a few, though not my personal favorite, “Crazy He Calls Me.”) Nonetheless the music is simply superb. Led by pianist Bill Jolly, the ace band is equal parts smooth and lively virtuosity, plus more than a touch of humor. But the show belongs to Bridgewater. Often we use the verb “to channel” when we want to praise an evocation of and tribute to an influential one-of-a-kind performer, but the word doesn’t feel quite right here.
Bridgewater has a deep feel for Holiday’s gut-wrenching, out-of-bounds phrasing and reproduces the famous foggy chirpiness of tone. On the other hand, she brings a liquid color of her own to some of the high notes, and now and then takes Holiday’s improvisatory melody-making to unexpected, precisely outlined heights of her own. In the songs, as in the scenes, I felt that I was in the presence not so much of someone channeling someone else, but of a performance that simultaneously subsumed and clarified an artistic personality of inimitable greatness.
The script requires only minimal acting from the musicians, whose skills in that department aren’t uniformly robust anyway, and Ayers’s underwritten character doesn’t give him much chance to quicken it out of a somewhat wooden quality, which makes his stilted pep talk to Holiday at the end of Act I feel unearned. But that’s the only dim moment in an otherwise emotionally convincing show. There are dark, dramatic moments, like a rape suffered when Holiday was just 10 – Bridgewater dramatizes it all by herself – and her luminous, mesmerizing performance of “Strange Fruit,” to my knowledge the only song about which a whole book has been written. There’s a spacey sequence that evokes through both acting and music what it feels like to shoot up with heroin. The show made me understand better than I ever did the meaning of the song “God Bless the Child.”
From the old-timey “Give Me a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)” to the all-grown-up “Violets for Your Furs,” the music is an absolute joy, Bridgewater’s thoughtful portrayal a delight. Lady Day closes January 5, so catch it while you can. Tickets and more info online or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250.