Not only has Dee Dee Bridgewater, a fine jazz singer, won Tony and Grammy awards, she is a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization! At present, she is starring in an Off Broadway musical, “Lady Day,” a tribute to Billie Holiday. No easy feat!
Written and Directed by Stephen Stahl, it follows the usual patterns; a performer has great talent, she has fallen on hard times, is encouraged by her manager to suck it up and do the show that will save her reputation. In this instance, when the story begins the excellent band is waiting for hours to rehearse in an old theatre in London. Billie is late; she gets there in the rain, and tells tall tales, finally admitting to her manager, pleasantly patient Robert played by David Ayers that she was depressed. Her latest boyfriend had left to go back to the states to defend her against charges that took her Cabaret license away.
As she looks back on her life, she yearns for a drink and drugs, her bête noir, but tries to ignore it and fights the urge. When she is singing Bridgewater is splendid; she whips through numbers like the Gershwin Brothers' “ A Foggy Day,” where she instructs the band to play it upbeat and not follow the ordinary, and “All of Me,” “Them There Eyes,” “Lady Sings the Blues” (by Holiday and Herbert Nichols) and “Lover Man.” But reenacting a rape on the floor when she is a mere child and/or shooting up is awkward and embarrassing. We learn that her mother actually left her to go to Baltimore to become a maid, leaving her on her own. Although it engendered outrage from some quarters, she continued to perform the song “Strange Fruit,” which alluded to the horrible hangings of African Americans in the South.
The second act finds Bridgewater appearing on stage in a beautiful white and crystal form-fitting gown designed by Patricia A. Hibbert. She explains that she started to wear white Gardenias in her hair when she burned her scalp with a curling iron. Billie Holiday was invented; her name was originally Ealeanora Fagan. But her voice was sensual and seductive and as Bridgewater moves through the numbers in the second act her voice became stronger. Holiday's own “God Bless the Child,” and “Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone,” “You've Changed” and “Mean to Me,” are just some of the gems she presents. Bill Jolly as Sunny, Pianist/Arranger/Musical Director, James Cammack as Deon/Bassist, Jerome Jennings/ Kelavon/Drummer and Neil Johnson as Elroy/Saxophonist play their hearts out.
“Lady Day,” Billie's nickname, is a musical treat with a weak script. At the Little Shubert Theatre in New York.