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First Nighter: Dee Dee Bridgewater Is Billie Holiday in Lady Day; Clint Holmes Is Himself in Stop This Train

10/03/2013 10:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Sometime in the winter of 1958, I had the chance to hear Billie Holiday on her closing night at Boston's venerated Storyville. For reasons I can't recall, I chose not to go. She died less than a year later, at 44, and that was that for me and Billie Holiday live. I've always regretted the dreadful lapse in judgment and put it right up there with my decision not to buy a ticket for the closing matinee of the original Long Day's Journey Into Night production.

So it was with a certain amount of hope and a modicum of hesitation that I approached Lady Day, at the Little Shubert, with Dee Dee Bridgewater playing the inimitable jazz singer. I was intrigued at the thought of someone (other than Diana Ross in the movie Lady Sings the Blues) impersonating Holiday in a manner that approximated the kind of in-person performance I'd dismissed with such blithe spirit.

On the other hand, I wasn't convinced that Bridgewater, whose singing I admire greatly, was the right choice. The dynamism with which she performs struck me as a far remove from Holiday's. Her mezzo is dark, rich, emotional, tough, whereas the woman she would be playing sang with a strong hint of helium in her throat, no matter how whiskey soaked her voice might become.

Bridgewater surprised me. Rather than singing Holiday's signature material as Dee Dee Bridgewater would sing it, she went for the Holiday sound from start to finish. Without question, she got the phrasing, and, as she moved from number to number, indicated -- as Holiday had always indicated -- that no song would ever come out the same way twice. Yet, no matter how she inflected it, it was consistently infused with irresistible feeling.

As for that instantly identifiable Holiday timbre, she almost always caught echoes of it -- those sudden, unexpected floating notes. Curiously, the more Bridgewater got into the two Lady Day acts, the more accurately she mimicked the singer the world came to adore.

To test my own reactions, I often closed my eyes and listened for the Holiday I still wish I'd heard at Storyville that lost night. As far as I'm concerned, when Bridgewater got to "You've Changed" (Carl Fischer/Bill Carey), she was Holiday in the flesh.

Oh, yes, Bridgewater is channeling the woman. There really is no song with which Holiday is associated that didn't honor the late singer -- who always insisted she could, and only would, sing the way she wanted to sing. She couldn't have cared less if detractors said she was "too slow" or "sounded tired." As she put it in the Porter Grainger/Everett Robbins standard, "T'Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

"You've Changed" isn't the only Holiday favorite Bridgewater revivifies -- as backed by a swinging on-stage quartet consisting of pianist-arranger Bill Jolly, saxophonist Neil Johnson, bassist James Cammack and drummer Jerome Jennings. Of course, Bridgewater reprises Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit," her own "God Bless the Child" (co-written with Arthur Herzog Jr.), the Ervin Drake/Dan Fisher/Irene Higginbotham "Good Morning Heartache." More often than not, she delivers them one time through, period. Only a few renditions include musical breaks, then return to bridge and out.

Among other great ones Bridgewater gets to is the rarely-heard-anymore "Violets for Your Furs." Can, like, anybody today imagine someone expressing the, like, sentiments in this Matt Dennis/Thomas Adair song? By the way, Frank Sinatra -- who often maintained his greatest influences were Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer -- probably recorded his version of the song as an homage to Holiday. Did he record it more than once? Only Jonathan Schwartz knows for sure.

About Lady Day, however, the less than terrific news is that it's not simply a solo gig. It's a play -- ostensibly -- written and directed by Stephen Stahl. It even has other characters involved. Holiday has come to London at the end of a 1954 European toured. Drinking and drugging, she's watched over by manager Robert (David Ayers) and assistant Rafael (Rafael Poueriet). Robert has his hands full. Holiday is initially late for a rehearsal she didn't want to have. (Did Stahl think of calling his piece Late-y Day?) Subsequently, when act two rolls around, she's so inebriated she babbles uncontrollably to the audience about her life-long tribulations. It's a harangue no 1954 London audience would sit still for.

No, Lady Day isn't a good play. The first act is marked by two long speeches. In the first, Holiday relives a childhood rape and its aftermath. In the second she relives racial prejudice she encountered while touring the South. Bridgewater's acting is strong and committed, but the writhing requirements she has to meet at these interludes -- not to mention repeatedly addressing her long absent mother -- aren't helpful. One nicety: In the second act, Bridgewater wears a glittering gown (and furs with no violets) designed by Patricia A. Hibbert to resemble one Holiday can be seen wearing in several photographs.

Because I don't read program song lists before or during a show, I sat through Lady Day longing to hear "Don't Explain" (music by Holiday, lyric by Herzog), which is based on the singer's attitude toward her cheating first husband Jimmy Monroe. Bridgewater never got to it, but when on leaving the theater, I checked the song list, I saw "Don't Explain" there. What I say to that is: Do explain.

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Watching and listening to Clint Holmes, you might find yourself thinking about the difference(s) between Las Vegas, where he does a good deal of his performing, and New York, where he's begun another Café Carlyle stay.

You might start parsing the contrasts even before he appears, for that's when Maria Callas singing "Casta Diva," is piped in as an intro. Not really standard Vegas fodder, is it? Turns out that after La Callas warbles, Louis Armstrong follows. Only then does Holmes arrive to explain that his British opera-trained mother and jazz-loving African-American father filled his Farnham, New York home with much music,

The remainder of the show is Holmes's humble homage to his parents -- the kind of tribute surely not a Vegas staple. It's conceived by Cecelia Joyce Johnson and directed by Larry Moss.

So how does the gear shifting go? It goes so well that it may even go well to a fault. Telling his story, Holmes mentions his desire to heed the jazz musicians he came to idolize when they raved about their reception in Paris. Whereupon he describes his own journey there at 21 and then devotes perhaps a third of his set to material in French and English. This might be more than some audiences will go for, although "Paris en Ponce," a chanson (in English) I didn't know by Rene Marie is a find.

The usually forceful Holmes actually starts off in restrained mode. Only gradually does he build up to his traditional Vegas self -- musical director/pianist Jeffrey Neiman leading the eight-man band with verve. Along the way, the mix is good and includes a beautifully acted, underplayed "This Nearly Was Mine." Holmes begins and ends the show with John Mayer's "Stop This Train," which is how he's titled the evening. Well, that isn't quite how it ends. He begs off with "1944," a charming song he wrote about his parents' meeting, and segues to another charmer about his raison d'etre, "I Sing." He certainly does.