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Review: Dee Dee Bridgewater as Billie Holiday

A weak "Lady Day" is saved by the star's performance

Dee Dee Bridgewater in "Lady Day" on Broadway

Dee Dee Bridgewater so wholly embodies her character in Lady Day, the off-Broadway musical that opened in early October and runs through mid-March, it’s nearly possible to forget that Billie Holiday is long deceased, that it isn’t her up there singing. Bridgewater painstakingly recreates Holiday’s distinctive vocal and physical idiosyncrasies and her oft-chronicled personality quirks. To put it another way, she owns the stage of Manhattan’s Little Shubert Theatre to the extent that it sometimes feels like a one-woman show; the other actors, including the excellent quartet that accompanies her, seem to disappear.

That Bridgewater is so commanding a presence shines a bright light on the other inescapable reality of Lady Day: the story, written and directed by Stephen Stahl, tends at times to become slight, telling us little about the artist that hasn’t already been told ad infinitum. The troubled singer’s tragic backstory is injected via periodic soliloquies and monologues, and while Bridgewater’s grasp of her subject’s insecurities and volatile behavior is again undeniable, those reflections often seem simplified for the benefit of a clueless audience. The tales of Holiday’s childhood and adolescence-the absentee parents, the rape at age 10, the scrounging-are often harrowing, and although Bridgewater’s sheer charisma draws her audience in, before long we just want her to cut the talking short and sing. Again, it’s a problem to blame on the book rather than on Bridgewater, a theatre veteran whose awards include a Tony for The Wiz and an Olivier nomination for a British production of Lady Day.

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