If you close your eyes, Nalley's voice uncannily sounds like Holiday's, especially in those gritty sultry moments
SF Bay Times
Lady Day in Love
By Linda Ayres-Frederick
Published: July 13, 2006
Lady SunRise, Kim Nalley, and Ed L. Gillies III in Lady Day in Love
With 16 well-loved Billie Holiday songs performed by SF Jazz singer Kim Nalley (owner of Jazz at Pearl's in North Beach), what's not to like in this new version of Lady Day in Love by C.H. Verburg? This play with music focuses on the years when Miss Holiday was a rising jazz star, and it's now playing at the Fellowship Theatre Guild.
Act One is set at a "Swing Street" rehearsal studio in 1941 in NYC where Billie, her mother Sadie Fagan who calls herself the Duchess (a convincing Lady SunRise), the hunky-handsome, skirt-chasing, soon-to-be husband Jimmy Monroe (a charming Ed L. Gillies III), and her versatile ivory-tickling accompanist Bobby (the phenomenally talented T. Hall) are gathered. As Billie shows off her new tightly-fitted frock to an appreciative Jimmy who also owns a Paris nightclub, she grabs the attention of her onstage and offstage audience with her songs. We see how lyrics like "Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that got his own" may have come into being her mother asked for money to buy a griddle to fry hamburgers, so the food inspectors won't close her restaurant business.
With only one strong onstage altercation between mother and daughter (over Billies present romantic involvement), the script tends to tell through narrative rather than show the drama of her life. While mother accuses daughter of being taken advantage of by that hustler Jimmy, Billie quips back, "How do you know I'm not the hustler in this case, Mama" Whoever it is, Mama does not want Billie ending up with the heartache she herself suffered, having been abandoned by Billie's father when Billie was just a baby. A staunch Catholic, the Duchess believes in marrying for life, although her ex went on to have more than one wife (at a time), neither of whom embraced Billie as a stepchild.
Although there is a lively and charming dance number between the Duchess and Jimmy in Act One, where both uninhibitedly strut their stuff, the Act Two setting in the Club Ebony works more strongly to the play's advantage. Here, an audience would naturally witness and interact with the events onstage and where Billie stunning in that white, sparkling dress and gardenia-bedecked coiffure and her kin can address each other directly. Shorter than the first act and with less dialogue, the second focuses on the songs which reveal the depth of Nalley's talent, backed up with additional guitar and bass (whose names deserve to be added to the program notes). If you close your eyes, Nalley's voice uncannily sounds like Holiday's, especially in those gritty sultry moments of Lover Man, Where Can You Be?
Although director Courtney Brown keeps the play moving at an evenly-modulated pace, I suspect as the run continues, the players will find increased levels of comfort with the material, cut loose, and have even more fun than on opening night.
Tired of seeing stories about Billie Holiday centered on the end of her life when she was a drugged-out has-been, playwright Verburg "thought this gifted artist deserved better." Luckily, several well-researched biographies are now available, so she based her script on Holiday's life from 1941 and 1948. It helped that the writer's mother grew up in Baltimore at the same time as Billie Holiday (in fact her grandfather's middle name was Holiday); her father, like Billie's, had played jazz trumpet; and some or their friends vividly remembered hearing Billie sing.
Kudos to Fellowship Theatre Guild producer Peter Fitzsimmons for bringing back Lady Day in Love.
Lady Day in Love continues (Fri./Sat. 8pm; Sun.3pm) until August 12 at Fellowship Theater Guild, 2041 Larkin St. (at Broadway), SF. Tickets ($25-$35) call (415) 305-3243 or (866) 811-4111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.