BY JESSICA MASTRONARDI
To be honest, before seeing this show I knew very little about Billie Holiday. I knew that name went hand in hand with musical royalty, but I didn’t know why. That was the pre Lady Day me. As for the post Lady Day me, she knows exactly why. And this excellent production is to thank.
When stripped of depth, the storyline can be explained in one sentence: Billie Holiday (Dee Dee Bridgewater) and her band rehearse during the afternoon and perform a concert that night in London. But to see it as just that would border on criminal. Technically, the show spans a few hours. But anyone truly watching will tell you it spans 39 years and counting. Through spoken word and song, both bursting with life and heart, Billie Holiday tells us her story. The story of a young girl, born from young parents, who from the start had to learn to protect herself. A woman who had to perform in great halls across Europe because she was legally barred from local U.S. nightclubs. A legend who was slowly brought down by addiction, abuse, discrimination and countless other demons. A warrior who never stopped fighting.
From the second the curtain rises, the audience is engulfed in 1950’s jazz. As the incredibly talented band (which not only creates beautiful music, but provides powerful backdrop) plays we find ourselves anxiously awaiting the arrival of Lady Day alongside her manager. David Ayers, who plays Robert, is the perfect blend of supportive and stern. His concern, which stems from his overwhelming compassion, is tangible and heartwarming to witness. And then Billie Holiday arrives, and you know, instantly, you are in the presence of a true star. And I am not just talking about Billie.
Dee Dee Bridgewater is a force to be reckoned with. Before I even touch her musicality, which even Billie herself would have no choice but to acclaim, I want to applaud Bridgewater on her spotless portrayal of a multilayered woman who is inches from cracking. When she laughed, a full body laugh, you heard the heartbreak muddled underneath. The strong woman who just sang her heart out picks up a glass of water with trembling fingers and you can’t help but see the woman is battling something big, and has been for quite some time. Her seamless transition from age 39 to 10 dragged the audience into a beautifully haunted flashback made all the more poignant with amazing sound and visual effects. The heavy dialogue, masterfully written by Stephen Stahl, was delivered with such speed that it resembled slurring, which you soon learn is no coincidence. And then she sings, and just as quickly and entirely as she gets lost in the song you can’t help but follow suit. Every performance is intoxicating, rich with raw emotion and even rawer talent.
To someone unfamiliar with Billie Holiday’s music, certain songs could sound similar. Incredible, but similar. As for all you Billie Holiday fans, if the older lady in the front row dancing and swaying the night away is any indication, it is truly a night to remember. I’ll tell you something else. Billie Holiday has officially gained a new fan. And I foresee many more in the near future.
Written & Directed by Stephen Stahl, Music Director Bill Jolly, Set Design by Beowulf Boritt, Costume Design by Patricia A. Hibbert, Lighting Design by Ryan O’Gara, Sound Design by Jason Crystal, Video/Projection Design by DIVE, Produced by Misty Road Productions LLC.
Cast: David Ayers as Robert, Rafael Poueriet as Rafael, Bill Jolly as Sunny (Pianist), James Cammack as Deon (Bassist), Jerome Jennings as Kelavon (Drummer), Neil Johnson as Elroy (Saxophonist), Dee Dee Bridgewater as Billie Holiday.
Performance days and times are Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m., Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m. at Little Shubert Theatre on 422 West 42nd Street. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including intermission and ticket price ranges from $47-$97. http://ladydaythemusical.com/tickets