There is a handful of female performers whose music and legend lived long after they did. Among them is Billie Holiday, whose musical legacy has spawned movies (Lady Sings The Blues) as well as shows. The latest show is Lady Day, written and directed by Stephen Stahl. Many bio-musicals have the difficult task of integrating the subject’s life story with its music. In shows like Soul Doctor, Forever Dusty, End of the Rainbow among others, the story feels like an imposition, stuffed in between the music. The audience has primarily come for the music and feels a sense of relief when the exposition stops and the singing resumes.
Dee Dee Bridgewater is extraordinary as Billie Holiday. She is convincing, especially with her easy laughter and natural bonding with the audience. Her presence, her sultry voice and her phrasing make the music her own. Bridgewater is captivating in her sensuous delivery of more than 20 songs.
The problem is in the book. Stahl wants to show the pain that made the lady sing the blues. Act I is a “flashback,’ revealing particularly traumatic events, specifically Holiday being raped as a young girl by a family friend. A later scene in which she relives frightening experiences in the South is somewhat confused by the muffled and distorted sound system. When Brdigewater sings Holiday’s famous song “Strange Fruit,” a somber song that she used to close many of her shows, the number lacks power.
Due to legal problems and run-ins with the law over drug use, Holiday lost her NY cabaret license. As a result, she was forced to tour the capitals of Europe. The setting for the play is London, her last stop before returning home.
The first act is her rehearsal and she’s hours late, giving the talented jazz quartet, led by pianist and musical director Bill Jolly, a chance to play. By Act Two, resplendent in a sequined white gown and white fur and wearing her trademark gardenias in her hair, she gives her concert. However, Holiday has had too much to drink and stops the show to explain how she lost her license.
The faults of the show no way reflects on the talented cast. Sadly, the problems with this show seem inherent in many of these types of shows: how to combine the story with the music.
It is true that experiences help to shape performers but talking about them often detracts from the shows designed to spotlight their lives. The audience may come to learn about these legends, but by the end, it really just wants to hear the music.