Even if watching a slow-motion train wreck makes future accidents less likely, it hardly matters in the horror of the moment. Both the horror and the moment are stretched beyond all endurance and reason in Lady Day, Stephen Stahl's rickety quasi-biomusical about jazz great Billie Holiday that just opened at the Little Shubert.
The second, and more unbearable, of the two acts depicts, in agonizingly realistic detail, Holiday (Dee Dee Bridgewater) performing a concert in London in November of 1954 — sloshed out of her mind. Slurring words, uncertain of where she is, and barely able to stand, she's determined to go on, because that's what she does, and if she can make it through this, then gosh darn it, she make it through anything.
As she lurches through more than a dozen standards she tries and fails to right her own ship, then bristles against attempts by her friend and manager, Robert (David Ayers), to assist her, stumbling as often as she departs on wild tangents about her personal history. Gradually, though, she regains her composure and some measure of her sobriety, and somehow completes her set more or less vertical.
What a triumph, right? Not exactly. Even if we're supposed to draw inspiration from her struggle, watching the barely contained dramatic implosion we need to reach the endpoint is an irritating process offering few specific rewards of its own. And because we know she's but five years away from death resulting from alcohol and drug abuse, her achievement is short-lived at best and pointless at worst.
Though equally unsatisfying dramatically, the first act benefits somewhat from its presentation of Holiday as an actual person. Not the most exciting of people, true: She's a one-dimensional addict and workaholic, who's driven by both an erotic yearning for her hunky assistant stage manager (Rafael Poueriet, doing his best in an essentially wordless and useless role) and the anguish of having experienced first-hand the evils of bigotry in the South earlier in her career. But Robert's push to pull Holiday together long enough for her to get through the show is at least identifiable as plot and conflict.
That those qualities are otherwise utterly absent might matter less were things entertaining in spite of them. But though it originally premiered in Europe in the 1980s, and Stahl has revised it in preparation for this production, Lady Day is as effortful as these shows come.
You might expect the listless "overture" ("Rhythm Is Our Business") or lamentable line readings from the band members (Bill Jolly, James Cammack, Jerome Jennings, Neil Johnson, who sizzle when they keep their mouths shut), as these are fairly common features of the genre. But if Stahl's languid book (a sample, from the end of Act I: "Billie, you can find out where you are today by knowing where you’ve been. You got to start accepting the good with the bad. That’s what makes us who we are") represents nearly 30 years of refinement, and his poorly paced, barely-there staging (on a distractingly empty set by Beowulf Boritt) the culmination of his vision, one suspects something is amiss in the conception.
Worse yet, these qualities sap the spark from the only things that have a prayer of elevating the evening: the songs and Bridgewater.
Most of the musical numbers have in large part been cut down, in some cases shredded, and do little to illuminate Holiday, her time, or her art; too often the effect is of flipping randomly between several jazz stations. And, particularly in Act II, the songs arrive in such a tidal wave that none has time to make an impact before the next one is upon you. Huge standards — "I Can't Get Started With You," "God Bless the Child," even "Lady Sings the Blues" are all but lost in the onslaught, and lesser numbers evaporate almost as soon as they're sung.
Bridgewater unquestionably does the best she can under the circumstances. Her vocals are strong (technically much more grounded than Holiday's were), and she injects plenty of growling regret into her renditions to invoke Holiday in spirit if not in actual timbre. And Bridgewater also captures an appropriate warmth that appeals when allowed to blossom free of the pretense that floods so much of the show. But facing off against the book's ramshackle structure, and its unimaginative stack of scenes that adds a bitter, ghostly Jim Crow flashback into the mix (something that, despite its crowning with a sincere "Strange Fruit," is far from a highlight), Bridgewater's natural gifts are rarely well served.
Neither are Holiday's in this format, of course — to understand and experience her pain, you need only exposure yourself to her recorded performances. Though you may appreciate both Holiday and the hard-working woman who's playing her, it's difficult not to leave the theater sensing you would have learned just as much (if not more) had Bridgewater instead resuscitated one of her own acclaimed Holiday acts. That star of yesterday proved that great art never needs to be buried under tons of chintzy ornamentation. Lady Day, alas, serves up little else.