'Lady Day' Recalls Her Life In Music

In the world of jazz, the name — and voice — of Billie Holiday holds a very special place.

The events — and music — of her brief and primarily tragic life are captured in a solo show, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” which opened Nov. 6 in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Theatre.

The 2014 Broadway production was categorized by the Tony Award committee as a “play with music” rather than a musical, although many would call the latter a closer fit.

The action, of which there is little, is set in the titular location, a rundown bar in south Philadelphia in March 1959. The cast is small: Holiday (Dorea Britton) , her piano player Jimmy Powers (Roy Bronkema), the owner/bartender Emerson (Daniel J. Slattery), Holiday’s dog Pepi (Rabbit) and an uncredited drummer, and the full weight of the production falls on Britton, dramatically and vocally.

Directed by Mary Hubbard with Bronkema as music director, the atmosphere is set very properly by scenic designer Phil Patnaude. Entering the black box space, the smoky, dimly lit atmosphere immediately evokes that of a jazz club of the period. Most of the designated playing area is filled with cabaret tables at which “patrons” are seated, are served beverages and, as the 90-minute, no intermission play progresses, become a peripheral part of the action.

Such as it is, that action consists of Holiday wandering among the listeners, sharing bits and pieces of her life-to-date, not in chronological order, and returning to the microphone, with increasing unsteadiness, to sing.

Lady Day  South Bend  (IN) Civic TheatreThe “score” consists of the songs of her life, some of which are little known (“Gimme A Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer”) and some of which have become classics (“God Bless the Child,” which she wrote with Arthur Herzog jr., and“ Strange Fruit”)

Details surround the vocals. Her childhood was horrific and her only joy came with her music and even that was tainted by racial prejudice and segregation. Three husbands used and abused her, increasing her dependence on alcohol and hard drug.

Born Eleanora Fagan, she took her professional name from silent screen star Billie Dove and the man reported to be her father, Clarence Holiday. Her earliest musical influences were Bessie Smith, “for the sound”, and Louis Armstrong, “for the heart.” Her closest friend, sax man Lester Young, gave her the nickname Lady Day.

Britton, studying music performance at IUSB, works hard in an exceedingly demanding role. However, her youth is not an asset here and the slightly nasal vocal quality and unique phrasing that were Holiday’s trademark are missing.

Sitting in deliberate shadow, Bronkema provides excellent instrumental support. Holiday’s trademark gardenias make a late appearance as does the well-behaved-but-way-too-large dog.

The March 1959 performance was like a farewell appearance. Four months later, Billie Holiday died. She was 44 years old.

“LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL” plays through Nov. 22 in the Warner Theatre at South Bend Civic Theatre, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.

 

ECT 'Addams' Is Finger-Snappin' Good

Elkhart Civic Theatre opened its production of “The Addams Family” musical Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House and, to paraphrase a popular slogan, it is “finger-snappin’ good”!

The weirdly lovable characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams in 1938 for the New Yorker magazine have more than withstood the test of time.

In addition to the cartoons, the Family has tickled the macabre funnybones of generations in films and on TV. The theatrical version by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, with music by Andrew Lippa, is the only “live on stage” production. Premiering on Broadway in 2010, national and international tours quickly followed.

Action begins — where else? — in the Addams’ graveyard where the Ancestors (“living, dead and undecided”) are called up for the annual celebration (“When You’re An Addams”).

The Addams Family Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INThe familiar Family members — Gomez (John Shoup). Morticia (Annette Kaczanowski), Wednesday (Christa Norwood), Pugsley (Ethen Nichols), Uncle Fester (Jaymes Hidde-Halsey),

Grandma (Geneele Crump) and Lurch (Michah Bryan) — all are instantly recognizable. OK, Shoup is a tad too tall for the horizontally-challenged cartoon Gomez, but he captures the heart and external quirks of the devoted husband and father.

His loyalties are divided, however, when Wednesday confides that she is in love and asks her father to keep the information from her mother, a promise Gomez eventually makes but has difficulty keeping (“Two Things”).

The Addams Family  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INAs the object of his constant affections, Kaczanowski creates a lovingly controlled wife and mother. She glides serenely through their somewhat skewed daily life, decapitating flowers and taking everything in stride until Wednesday invites her “normal” boyfriend Lucas Beineke (Matthew Manley) and his parents Mel (Zach Rivers) and Alice (Chrissy Herrick) to dinner.

Morticia agrees to the dinner but only if they play The Game, “Full Disclosure,” afterwards.

The evening is complicated by Pugsley’s fear of losing his sister (and torturer) to Lucas. His actions result in an explosive confession from Alice (“Waiting”), who talks in greeting-card rhymes, which breaks up the party as well as all surrounding relationships.

Everything is, of course, resolved by the final blackout and getting there could not be more fun.

The Addams Family Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INThe entire ECT cast, crew and seven piece orchestra directed by Mark Swendsen are at the top of their respective forms. Special kudos to the 10 Ancestors. Garbed in ghostly grey/white they sing, dance, move set pieces and generally are an asset to the entire production. Each is costumed by Linda Weisinger and her crew in a different historical period, depending, of course, on when they died.

Shoup swashbuckles Gomez-style (fencing with Thing) and vocally sounds better than ever. His shock at seeing Wednesday in a yellow dress (“You look like a crime scene!”) echoes dismay at the realization that “Wednesday’s Growing Up.” Kazanowski, who also as assistant to director Penny Meyers, is the perfect foil, praising Wednesday for shooting dinner “at the petting zoo,” dreaming of a trip to the sewers of Paris and cheered by the thought that “Death Is Just Around The Corner.”

The reconciled duo’s “Tango De Amor” is a guaranteed showstopper.

As the girl trying to bridge the gap between her family and the “normal” neighbors, Norwood consistently hits the bullseye (with her ever-present crossbow) and never drops character, vocally or dramatically.

The Addams Famioy  Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INManley is just right as the “normal” boyfriend/fiancé who goes to great lengths to prove to Wednesday he is “Crazier Than You.”

As Uncle Fester, Hidde-Halsey puts the focus on love, enlisting the aid of the Ancestors to give everyone a happy ending, finding his own in a celestial rendezvous.

In addition to the obvious humor, there are a number of situations to which parents and children can relate. It’s the generation gap in mourning, and the absurdity makes it even more obvious.

The set, designed by Shoup and painted by scenic artist Jeffery Barrick, is a real tribute to “less is more” with every location easily recognized by a few quick changes and the addition/removal of set pieces, happily facilitating the flow of the action.

Four choreographers are credited with the dances and whoever did which number, all were executed sharply and with proper emotion (or lack thereof). The same is true of the musical numbers, with credit to vocal director Kim Dooley.Finally, the Addamses are determined to “Move Toward the Darkness,” and this journey takes the entire audience into the light of laughter.

“THE ADDAMS FAMILY” plays Friday through Sunday and Nov. 20-2 I in the Bristol Opera House in downtown Bristol. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org.