Looking Back at a Life of Song
Yesterdays—An Evening with Billy Holiday
By Amy J. Barry
I suppose we are most fascinated with the dark side of celebrity—or at least it makes for a juicier storyline than celebrating a star in his or her heyday.
Why else would there be so many musical biographies that take place in the last years in the lives of brilliant entertainers with tragic and complex pasts?
Most recently, these have included this season’s Marilyn Forever (a memoir of Marilyn Monroe) at Ivoryton Playhouse and last summer’s Ella (the life of Ella Fitzgerald) at Hartford Stage.
The newest of these musical portraits is Yesterdays—An Evening with Billy Holiday starring Vanessa Rubin at Hartford Stage, presented by The National Black Touring Company and directed by its founder, Woodie King, Jr.
But in 2005 Ernestine Jackson also played the drug- and alcohol-addicted artist in the last years of her life in Lady Day at Emerson Bar & Grille performed at Long Wharf Theatre.
The biggest difference in these two productions is that although Jackson played the lead in many Broadway musicals including Hello Dolly, Rubin is a renowned jazz vocalist and a major jazz recording artist who relaxes right into Holiday’s magnificent singing style with all its subtle nuance. She effortlessly performs such soulful Holiday classics as a mellow, fluid rendition of God Bless the Child, the humorous, snappy Pig Feet. and the haunting Strange Fruit, about the lynching of blacks in America, which she first recorded in 1939.
The other difference between the two Holiday shows is that although they both take place in nightclubs in the 1950s, the Hartford Stage performance has cabaret seating in front of the stage (people can bring drinks to their tables), in addition to the fixed row seating. If you’re lucky to get the cabaret seats, it feels like you’re in a New York club swept up by the music, versus the less intimate experience of watching a performance within a play.
Rubin becomes progressively more tipsy and unpredictable as the night wears on in her role as Holiday, bantering with the band about her past from the horrific circumstances of her childhood—she was raped at the age of nine—to the racism that followed her throughout her career. Even at the pinnacle of success, Holiday was barred from the bathrooms used by white performers.
The band, made up of Levi Barcourt (musical director/pianist), Bernard Davis (drummer/vocalist) and David Jackson (bassist) are hands-down superb jazz musicians, but are somewhat lacking as actors. Their exchanges with Rubin as they try to keep her calm and focused as she continues to down one drink after another, tend to be wooden—although we get right back into the mood and the passion of the performance as soon as they break out into the next song.
It’s a hard balancing act to find someone who is an equally talented actor and singer to fully flesh out the role of a performer like Holiday. But for the most part, under King’s acute direction, Rubin captures the essence of the legendary star’s loneliness and pathos, the fragility under the hard shell, the compulsion to drown her sorrows in drink and drugs. But Rubin completely captures us when she’s behind the microphone; the one place Holiday was clearly at home, singing her heart out.
Yesterday—An Evening with Billy Holiday continues through Aug. 22 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street in downtown Hartford. For tickets and times call 860-527-5151 or online www.hartfordstage.org.
This review appears in the Living section of Shore Publishing Community Newspapers on Aug.19-20, 2009.