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 heart-warming 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.
"Whenever Ms. Bridgewater broke into song, ..., I sank back happily into my seat and let her artistry, ..., seduce me into a state of bliss."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Unfortunately, even a garden full of gardenias wouldn’t mask the clumsiness of Stephen Stahl’s script and direction. ... When Holiday is performing, 'Lady Day' works well enough."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"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."
Roma Torre for NY1
"With more singing and much less talking, 'Lady Day' might have been a fine evening of entertainment."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Dee Dee Bridgewater mesmerizingly channels Billie Holiday in Lady Day, the new off-Broadway musical about the legendary singer. It’s too bad, then, that the veteran Grammy Award-winning singer couldn’t have also channeled a more compelling theatrical showcase for her vocal and acting talents than this rickety combination of bio-musical and concert written and directed by Stephen Stahl."
Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...