One remarkable thing about Dee Dee Bridgewater’s portrayal of Billie Holiday in the Off Broadway musical Lady Day has nothing to do with how she performs that wonderful catalog (wonderfully) or delivers Holiday’s between-song straight talk (so straight it is razor sharp). It’s her laugh, a cackle that sounds utterly genuine — and completely divided between Holiday’s satisfaction with her own stories, and a sort of bitter amusement at all the compromises that allowed her to tell them.
And Lady Day needs the laughs. The show, which plays through March 16, is set in late 1954, when Holiday was performing in London as part of a European tour she undertook after losing her cabaret license in New York (as a result of a much earlier narcotics conviction). She battles memories of her hellish childhood during a the first act’s ”rehearsal,” and is briefly overtaken by her adult indulgences in the second, the ”concert.” Holiday would succumb to her addictions five years later, at age 44. On this rainy London day, though, we rely on her glimmers of hope.
And, of course, we rely on the starbursts of optimism and pain in her music that Bridgewater so effectively honors. There are plenty of songs to sit back and enjoy here. It would be a pleasure to hear her render ”Billie’s Blues (I Love My Man)” under any circumstances, but here the singer, actress, and radio host makes it serve the story, infusing it with a sense of relief and (still shaky) confidence as Holiday rallies from a nearly disastrously drunken opening to her set.
The show also explores Holiday’s personal minefield, including her rape as a young girl (which Bridgewater reenacts alone, letting her body slowly collapse under an invisible weight), her fixation with a flask of gin left behind by her drummer, and her anxiety over an empty pre-concert theater, so much larger than her preferred jazz clubs. And then there is ”Strange Fruit,” the song about a lynching that Holiday made so famous. Bridgewater sings the number with searing feeling as her character recalls her father, a victim of Jim Crow.
David Ayers plays her road manager, Robert, without quite proving how Holiday relied on him. And a hot band of not-so-hot actors fill the stage, responding to the star’s songs and banter with a good humor that honors Billie Holiday’s legacy. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge or 800-447-7400)