A new musical focusing on the life and times of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, called "Lady Day," has debuted off Broadway. NY1's Roma Torre filed the following review.
As a work of theatre, "Lady Day," an original musical about the life of jazz great Billie Holiday, has a lot of problems. But, on the music front, it's solid gold.
Dee Dee Bridgewater plays the iconic figure or, more fittingly, channels her, over the course of more than two hours. Written and directed by Stephen Stahl, it's basically a concert with biographical interludes wedged in. Though the cast features two other speaking roles and a terrific four-piece band, Bridgewater essentially carries the show, singing close to 30 numbers, including several which she co-wrote. Among them, "God Bless The Child" and "Lady Sings The Blues."
The setting is not terribly imaginative. It's 1954. Holiday is in London for a concert at the end of a European tour. She's barred from performing in the States following a drug conviction and there's a lot at stake here because she's hoping to be able to return home.
Of course, she's plagued by the usual demons – drugs, booze and insecurity. And every so often, the lights dim and she relives a sad or tragic moment in her life. Bridgewater is an excellent actress, but even she seems to struggle a bit with all the clunky exposition.
The singing, however, is another story. Bridgewater is vocally masterful. That halting vibrato and plaintive urgency is pure Holiday. And she adds a raw honesty that suggests a life dominated by supreme highs and lows.
On top of all that, when she appears in Act 2 dressed for the concert, with that trademark gardenia in her hair, beaded gown and fur stole, she is utterly transformed.
I wish I could say the entire show matches the thrill of Bridgewater's vocal performance, but it's mostly a palate of gray in between the songs. It's all worth it, though, when the lady starts to sing, and suddenly, we get an array of the most exquisite blues.