Tag Archives: Peter de Klerk

Janeta Bounces from Poppins to Billie

Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Forget the famous nickname for a second. Like only a handful of jazz artists – instrumentalists Miles Davis and John Coltrane come to mind – Billie Holiday’s vocal career had a distinctive arc, leaving the diva’s fans with a blithe and sunny early period of recordings, a forceful and dramatic middle period, and a worldly wise and poignant late period. The meteoric 25-year Lady Day career has stages as identifiable as Beethoven’s groundbreaking music or Shakespeare’s awesome procession of plays.

The legend of Billie Holiday took off almost instantly after her early death in 1959. That legend is easier to capture on film if you want to deliver the full breadth – and the full tragedy – of the story. But Lady Sings the Blues (1972) was a wasted opportunity, totally worthless as a biography, notwithstanding Diana Ross’s Oscar-nominated portrayal. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by playwright Lanie Robertson was a more serious attempt, though the 1986 drama didn’t gain real traction in the theatre world until 2014, when Audra McDonald brought it to Broadway – and subsequently to HBO.

Now it’s here at Queens University, where Hadley Theatre has been transformed into Emerson’s in an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Jeremy DeCarlos. Janeta Jackson not only sings Billie’s songs and wears her signature gardenia, she mingles with the paying customers and engages them as they sit in casual cabaret style at cocktail tables. Chip Decker’s scenic setup also provides for extra stadium seating behind the many cocktail tables plus a bar at the rear of the hall.

Robertson focused on the most notorious part of Billie’s life, the final days when her deteriorating health and appalling finances sent her on a trajectory toward police custody on her deathbed. When she died of cardiac arrest and liver disease at the age of 44, handcuffed to her hospital bed, there was $7,500 in cash taped to her body and 70 cents in her bank account. It’s already 1959 when we see her at Emerson’s, and costume designer Carrie Cranford has outfitted Jackson in the same sort of satin dress that you’ll find on Billie’s valedictory Columbia album, Lady in Satin, and on the Verve memorial LP set, The Unforgettable Lady Day.

Not a total surprise, since Willis Hickerson, Jr., leading his trio at the keyboard in the role of Jimmy Power, plays Billie on with “Satin Doll.” When Jackson arrives, she mostly sings songs that are actually associated with Billie – but not necessarily with her latter days. With his choice of songs and with the rambling patter of his script, Robertson contrives to have latter-day Lady Day present an informal retrospective of her life and career, musically emphasizing the early and middle years, leaving space for songs that inspired her and, of course, the songs she wrote and championed.

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Among the early songs sprinkled on the Lady Day songlist are “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Foolin’ Myself,” and “Easy Living” from Billie’s swinging early period, recorded in 1935-38 with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Lester Young. Robertson does something interesting “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” not only programming it early in Billie’s set but making it emblematic of her heroin habit as she staggers backstage midway through her show. Jackson arrives onstage slurping a drink, so Billie’s substance abuse is never a secret. It’s the main reason she’s performing in this Philadelphia dive, we quickly learn, for she had lost her license to perform in New York City cabarets a few arrests earlier.

Although we never hear any of the mighty heartbreakers on Billie’s final album, like “I’m a Fool to Want You” or “You’ve Changed,” the mood definitely darkens toward the end. Although lighting designer Evan Kinsley repeatedly flouts the words of the script, which should prompt him to keep the piano player in semi-darkness, he does turn down the houselights and shine a spot on Jackson for the climactic “Strange Fruit,” a searing depiction of a Southern-style lynching that became a Lady Day hallmark.

Or as she puts it, one of the songs we came to hear. She doesn’t say it quite that politely.

There are no “I’ve seen the mountaintop” moments in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, so the ending is more pathetic than tragic. Embedding an autobiography into a cabaret performance wasn’t the easiest assignment for Robertson, but his best line, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married: he was 18, she was 16, and I was three,” flows naturally out of the opening of Billie’s Lady Sings the Blues autobio.

He did his research, you will find, and so have DeCarlos and Jackson. DeCarlos has chosen his musicians well – bassist Peter de Klerk and drummer Tim Scott fill out the trio – and he gets an alert and spontaneous performance from Hickerson where Powers has to speak a few lines here and there, coping with Billie’s spaced-out eccentricities. And who what DeCarlos saw from Jackson at auditions, where she arrived with calling cards that included the doo-wop group in Beehive and the lead in Mary Poppins? Bet it wasn’t nearly the same Billie as we’re seeing now.

For there can be no doubting that, if she wasn’t a Lady Day fan when she showed up auditioned for DeCarlos, Jackson has certainly immersed herself in the recordings since landing the role. To a Billiephile, it’s obvious that Jackson concentrated most heavily on the Verve recordings of 1948-57, which have snippets of Billie’s spoken introductions, a nice compromise between the juicy early recordings and the raspy final releases. Jackson seems to have avoided or rejected the Emerson’s Bar recording by McDonald – a very wise choice, for Audra not only leans a bit on Billie’s raspiness, she occasionally exaggerates the mannerisms of her last years.

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Jackson echoes those mannerisms rather than imitating or caricaturing them, and she is almost as uncanny as McDonald in capturing the timbre of the speaking voice, though she eschews the telltale rasp. On other aspects of the speaking voice, Jackson might move closer to the six-time Tony Award winner, who won her sixth as Lady Day. Slowing down would help Jackson make Lady Day’s aging and physical deterioration more real, and slurring her speech a little more would couple nicely with the effects of the liquor and the junk.

The Jackson vocals are consistently wonderful in her chosen Verve groove, most Billie-like near the end of the evening in “Don’t Explain,” where she almost equals “Strange Fruit” as the highlight. If she puts a little too much mannered mustard on the bridge and at the end of “God Bless the Child,” Holiday’s most-admired original composition, it’s still outstanding – and she has none of the difficulties with the metre that plague the recorded covers by McDonald and Ross.

While the setting at Hadley isn’t as intimate as the HBO Special, it’s cozier than the Broadway production was and DeCarlos gives Jackson freedom to mingle with the clientele and roam away from the little stage – which she does with admirable poise. Ladylike, we can say. If you love Lady Day, there’s no need at all to hesitate, and if you’re looking to find out more, look no further.

UNC Doctors Do No Harm in Charlotte Ballet’s “Shakespeare Reinvented”

Review:  Innovative Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Charlotte Ballet's Innovative Works 2019

When Shakespeare wrote his plays four centuries ago, he knew the word “ballet” – but not as we do. Back then, he used the word interchangeably with “ballad.” So yes, the man of so many words knew about dance, spoke about it over a hundred times in his works, but he was far more preoccupied with music and song. Collaborating with a couple of theatre heavyweights from UNC Charlotte, distinguished Shakespeare professor Andrew Hartley and department chair Lynne Conner, Charlotte Ballet is bridging the gap in their latest Innovative Works program at the Patricia McBride & Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance.

With Unsex Me Here, choreographed by Stephanie Martinez, and Let Be by Peter Chu, Shakespeare Reinvented seeks to wed ballet with the Bard. It’s not an unheard-of idea, but it is an unusual one.

Truly reinventing Shakespeare sets the bar higher than merely blending, of course, and it’s Martinez and Connor who take on that challenge most aggressively. Their core idea is that Shakespeare’s universe is male-dominated, as evidenced in such titles as Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, or Antony and Cleopatra. What would it be like to see that script flipped?

Martinez and Connor select four Shakespearean couples and give it a go. Some of the segments pair the couples as you would expect, Juliet with Romeo, Titania with Bottom, Lady Macbeth with Macbeth, and Kate with Petruchio. But each of the women, starting with a devastating Alessandra Ball James as Lady M in a devilish jumpsuit designed by Aimee J. Coleman, gets a solo spot – and so do the demoted heroes. At regular intervals, the men dance as a group, yet it seemed that more time was devoted to the women and their sorority.

Coleman’s costumes, along with a few props, served to differentiate between the characters. Twin panels with studio mirrors were the only scenery on the bare Center for Dance stage, most effective when the guys rolled them apart and, aided by JP Woodey’s lighting, the ladies made a dramatic upstage entrance.

Projected on the flipside of the mirrors – or prerecorded and delivered through the loudspeakers – text from the plays helped to orient us, and the soundtrack composed and constructed by Johnny Nevin and Peter de Klerk was heavily freighted with music by Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi to complete our time travels.

With so much sound and design necessary to orient us in the worlds of four Shakespearean couples, you may be dubious about how much a choreographer and her dancers can do to reinvent them. Other quibbles arise when men and women gather – presumably from different eras and countries – with no observable upshot or takeaway. Are we really contemplating gender when we watch a fairy queen cavorting with a donkey, or are we simply revisiting A Midsummer Night’s Dream and having some fun?

Martinez and Coleman definitely set the women free from their traditional moorings, particularly James as Lady M and Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Kate. If you’ve seen or studied Macbeth, you’re likely aware that the “unsex me here” quote comes from a Lady M soliloquy where she is steeling herself to commit regicide with her husband and seize the throne of Scotland. Perhaps less familiar is the quote gleaned from The Taming of the Shrew, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” It comes from early in the first dialogue that Katherine has with Petruchio, shortly after he has obtained her father’s consent to take her hand in marriage – with a sizable dowry to go along with the prize.

Belying her customary wildness – downright frowziness in some productions I’ve seen – Sturt-Dilly is rather dazzlingly dressed, intimidating in a whole new way. Nothing comical or witty remains here to remind us of the male-female sparring that often enlivens Shakespeare’s comedies. Instead, Martinez channels all of the comedy into the Titania-Bottom encounter, as Sarah Lapointe vamps Peter Mazuroski to the tunes of a medley sung by Judy Garland from her iconic Judy at Carnegie Hall album. We can assume that we’re not seriously contemplating gender when Garland is crooning “For Me and My Gal.”

Clad in a simple summer dress, I mistook Sarah Hayes Harkins for Kate at first, but the rose she carries, referencing Juliet’s signature “that which we call a rose would smell as sweet,” should be a giveaway. Harkins gets to do some rather audacious stuff that we would not expect of a demure young teen, most notably when she brushes the flower across Ball’s hand and produces the large bloody spot that Lady M obsesses over so famously.

Charlotte Ballet's Innovative Works 2019

Clocking in at an expansive 44+ minutes, Unsex Me Here was richly enjoyable and never struck me as an academic or PC rehab of these familiar men and women. Yes, it’s true that the guys – even Bottom – were deemphasized, but there was no detectable condemnation or belittlement. Aside from Mazurowki, who got to wear the donkey ears, the most characterful men were Ben Ingel as a soulful Romeo and Drew Grant as a somewhat malevolent Macbeth. No longer tasked to tame Kate and not visibly intimidated by her, it was hard to discern what was driving James Kopecky in his portrayal of Petruchio.

The Chu approach in Let Be, following the development of Hamlet’s character rather than his story, promised to be intriguing when I read the program notes. As the piece unfolded, I found it hard to connect anything I saw from Juwan Alston as the royal Dane with any developmental scheme whatsoever. Costume designs by Chu were a dreary gray and Woodey’s lighting wasn’t intended to dispel the gloom. Nor was the New Age musical score typified by Ólafur Arnalds’ “Nyepi.” Amorphous pods or globs were scattered across the stage when the lights came up, coalescing into a monkish Oriental style when dancers bloomed from them.

Instead of Ophelia, Horatio, the usurping King Claudius, or even Hamlet’s spectral father, these were the shades that surrounded our troubled prince. When the ensemble sprouted pomegranate-colored fans, they snapped them open and shut in unison. Only by reciting lines from the most recognizable soliloquies could we know that Alston was Hamlet. Pitted against performances of these greatest hits that you may have seen onstage or on film by great Shakespearean immortals – or your 11th grade English teacher – Alston fares as you might expect. Wisely, nobody is asking him to ascend into those heavenly spheres of eloquence, so there’s a vulnerable student simplicity to his speeches.

If no amazing synthesis or revelation emerges in Shakespeare Reinvented, there are no pretentious or stupid faux pas either, probably because these two talented choreographers didn’t allow their academic partners to get inside their heads – or their art. The dancers embrace the project with an enthusiasm that matches their talents, so the result constantly bristles with excitement and electricity.