Dee Dee Sharp

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:03

Bridgewater returns to Broadway in Billie Holliday triumph

At first Dee Dee Bridgewater's impersonation of Billie Holliday in Lady Day at the Little Shubert Theater seems an odd misuse of talent in this Broadway production imported from its London run (where Bridgewater got an Olivier Award nomination). Bridgewater's strong, tall stage presence and ringing voice deserves to be showcased in an original characterization--not competing with popular memory of an artistic legend. But as Lady Day holds forth, Bridgewater gets to prove her real talent as both singer and actress. She singlehandedly makes immediate drama of Holliday's tragic flashbacks and well-known struggles..

This isn't Billie as Diana Ross flamboyantly impersonated Holliday in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues (an inauthentic yet unique personification), nor is it the maudlin wreck that Lonette McKee presented in the 1987 Off-Broadway play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Bridgewater offers an older Billie, consciously carrying her troubles and her renown on her shoulders, yet still commanding a knowledge of song craft and sung-emotion. This self-knowing--demonstrated in the way she interacts with her band and manager, her fond recall of saxophonist Lester Young, her balance of deprecation and confidence--are like the psychological plenitude that August Wilson used to flesh out blues artist Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

In the second half of Lady Day, when Bridgewater has already established Holliday's desperate need to prove her professionalism during the London leg of a European tour arranged to win-over those opponents withholding her cabaret card that would allow her to perform in the U.S., the boozey trepidation disappears and the play's mini-drama turns into a concert. This is where jazz pro Bridgewater blends a Holliday tribute with her own artistry.

She keeps the twangy sing-song and made-to-order girlishness that were a transparent cover for pain and boundless vulnerability, but there's thrill in Bridgewater's precise histrionics. She sings so that we understand Holliday's artistic victory over everything else that went wrong in her life. Purely thanks to Bridgewater, not the rehash of miseries in director Stephen Stahl's banal, overlong book, Lady Day becomes an existential musical coup de theatre.

This is only the second time I ever saw Bridgewater perform--the first was back in 1976 when I saw her Tony Award-winning performance in The Wiz. She had shown commanding grace that I always listened for in the jazz albums she recorded in the years afterward. Lady Day confirms that Bridgewater's excellence in The Wiz was no fluke of pop casting; she's still an impressive actresss. That's why there is an August Wilson-intelligence to the multilayered way she presents Holliday. Bridgewater conveys complexity in the achievement of performance; above all, she gives a fresh appreciation of the hurt and joy that Holliday (ad libbing boldly and profanely to her audience) was able to produce.

No doubt August Wilson would have appreciated a small miracle of Bridgewater's: the play sets up "Strange Fruit" as a powerfully meaningful quasi-biographical statement in the first half but after leaping that hurdle, Bridgewater, in the second half, sings "God Bless the Child"--the greatest of all Holliday's hits--even more profoundly. It's not a social lesson but a testimony of life experience and Bridgewater, who can swing when necessary, makes its insight sharp and reverberant. Bridgewater rescues the Billie Holliday legend from cliché.

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