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Also concerned is Robert, the stage manager and Holiday's friend, commendably played without any idiosyncratic affectation by David Ayers. Robert wants things to go smoothly for Holiday. This concert is the culmination of a long European tour planned after her cabaret card/license to work in the USA was revoked after she was convicted and jailed for the possession and use of heroin.
Known affectionately and familiarly as Lady Day, Holiday is celebrated as one of the great, now legendary, jazz vocalists of the mid 20th century. Many performers have played Holiday in various screen and stage versions of her life and career, as well as specifically in Stahl's play various revised revisions of which have been making the rounds for the past thirty years.
We can see that it's pouring outside as Holiday (Dee Dee Bridgwater), wearing a red taffeta dress, a gold cross around her neck and with her hair pulled taut into a long pig tail a la Josephine Baker, careens through the door of the back brick wall of the stage (traditionally evoked by designer Beowulf Boritt). She shakes off her umbrella, but can't turn off her motor-mouthed blather that makes us wonder, despite her excuses, what it is that she's "on" and if she can rehearse at all.
How appropriate that an up-tempo "Rain Rain Go Away," does the trick to bring her around. It also serves as the beginning of very poignant personal story within a wildly careening play. Despite her own misgivings about the theater being "too big" Holiday is able to miraculously pull herself together. Somewhat untypical of the Holiday who has been either filmed or recorded are the extra lively tempos taken with such early songs as "A Foggy Day," and "All of Me." A rather nice touch is an abbreviated Lindy that Holiday does with Robert to "Swing Brother, Swing."
Act I inevitably gets serious and with more hints at the Holiday we want to acknowledge, as she sits on the piano recalling her relationship with the great jazz saxophonist Lester Young and sings a heartfelt "Lady Sings the Blues." The spirit of Holiday comes through Bridgwater even stronger with "Lover Man," but most movingly with "Strange Fruit."
Bridgewater, who won a Tony Award for playing Glinda in The Wiz and a Grammy for her Best Jazz Vocal Album for Eleanor Fagan : To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, is terrific when she is channeling the essence of the Holiday style. I also liked the way she slowly evoked the mellow, unforced jazzy intonations that we identify with Holiday without sounding like an impersonation.
She has a more difficult time to bring immediacy to Holiday's ever-tormenting memories though she manages to make it credible. These memories are triggered during rehearsals and used as dramatic breaks between songs. The well-worn device is a bit trite, but, even under Stahl's over-heated direction they serve as compelling narrative bridges for those who may still need the back story.
The lighting (good work by Ryan O'Gara) blots out everything but Holiday as she is catapulted back to a terrible childhood, enacting being raped and reliving her horrifying confrontations with racism during a Southern tour. "Just stay sober," is Robert's plea to Holiday as her insecurities have begun to envelope her.
"All I wanted to do was sing," admits Holiday to the audience during the actual concert that comprises Act II, although we see the unhappiness of a desperately lonely woman exposed in fits and starts. Nevertheless looking gorgeous in a shimmering white gown and with her swept up hair accessorized with the signature white gardenia, she is obviously tipsy. She unconscionably berates the audience with some rather raw language as she segues into a rambling confessional.
Bridgewater is expected to extract more from these monologues than they can rightfully support. Many of the video and projection enhanced digressions into the past seem gratuitously integrated. It is primarily when we hear Bridgewater stake a personal claim on such Holiday classics as "My Man," "God Bless the Child," "Mean to Me," that we are in true report with the legend.
It is a nice touch for the superb musicians (see credits)to have character names and to speak lines. Rafael Poueriet, who plays the Assistant Stage Manager, is good and good-looking enough to catch the eye of Holiday as he works on the lighting bridge.
For all the pain and sorrow with which she was afflicted, Holiday will always be admired for her unique styling of the blues as with "When I'm singing the blues, I'm living in that color." Bridgewater is definitely living in that color at the Little Shubert Theater.
Aside from its earlier incarnations, this is the first New York production of Lady Day. This "newly revised" version was previously produced at the Theatre de Boulogne-Billancourt and Theatre du Gymnase Marie Bell in Paris as well as the Donmar Warehouse and the Piccadilly Theatre in London.