First Ladies of Jazz

Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' Denise Lee clicks directly into the essence of jazz icon Billie Holiday.

Things just got a whole lot cooler around here. At two Dallas theaters, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday are back and ready to swing. Giving remarkably convincing performances as the late, great jazz icons in separate shows, E. Faye Butler is Lady Ella and M. Denise Lee is Lady Day. They sing their great big beautiful hearts out and break ours as they share the music of these women, and their life stories, scarred with similar tragedies, mistakes and regrets.

 It's been more than 50 years since the real Fitzgerald and Holiday recorded an album together at the Newport Jazz Festival. They were of the same generation, born two years apart. That's startling to consider, given that Fitzgerald, the "Is it live or Memorex?" star who died in 1996, still seems so contemporary. She enjoyed a long career, living into her 70s, recording more than 200 albums and receiving every accolade the music industry affords. Billie Holiday was made legendary by her sad, early death (of cirrhosis of the liver) in 1959 at the age of 44.

 The closest we can come to a reunion of these legends now is through the sort of living Memorex versions performed in two impassioned biographical musicals that just happen to be running at the same time—Ella at Dallas Theater Center and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.

 With one exception, the cast of Ella comes to DTC direct from its month-long, sell-out performance at Chicago's Northlight Theatre. This big-scale, glitzy production spreads across the wide Kalita Humphreys Theater stage, lit by designer John Lasiter in vivid blues and violets. The performers' experience as an ensemble is evident in the smooth chemistry among Butler and her tight onstage combo: conductor-pianist Anderson Edwards, drummer Walter Kindred, bass player John Whitfield and trumpet player Ron Haynes, who blows a mean horn and turns in a charming impression of Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong on George and Ira Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

 Based on a play by Dyke Garrison, written by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Rob Ruggiero, with musical arrangements by Danny Holgate, Ella unfolds over a day and a night in 1966 as "Miss Fitz" prepares for a concert in Nice, France. In the first act, she's in good voice but bad temper, snapping at her conductor and scowling at her longtime manager, Norman Granz (Dallas actor Kieran Connolly). She doesn't like being urged to put more "patter" into her act. Ella was never good with the frivolous chitchat. She just wants to sing the notes and go home. Sad, mad and distracted—we find out why later on—but when the music starts, she never misses a beat.

 In the much stronger second act of Ella, we get a lavish 40-minute concert. The singer sweeps onstage, resplendent in a glittery turquoise gown. Between "Lullaby of Birdland" and "S'Wonderful" and "Dancin' Cheek to Cheek" and the achingly sweet "My Buddy," she also gives with the patter. A little too much patter perhaps, since the music's so great and Butler masterfully interprets it as the "First Lady of Song." But the recollections serve to infuse the tunes with additional layers of meaning.

 There are jukebox shows and bio-musicals and this, which falls somewhere in between as a one-woman songbook with biographical monologues. Like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald was born to unmarried parents, suffered childhood sexual abuse, did some time in reform school and worked around brothels as a young girl. Both singers got their big breaks at Harlem's Apollo Theater and later filled Carnegie Hall. Both married early to men with shady reputations. Neither had children of their own, though they desperately wanted to be mothers.

 But that's where their stories diverge. "My life is more like Doris Day's than Lady Day's!" says Ella in Ella. She didn't drink, use drugs or stay out late with the band after gigs. There were no run-ins with the law. She dreamed of having a family, but when she came close, she scuttled domesticity to stay on the road nearly year-round, even after secretly adopting her sister Frances' eighth son. According to this show, constant work served as Ella's distraction from the messy realities of life.

 The script occasionally stumbles into clumsy pronouncements—"Why should I sing the blues? I know the blues"—but Ella soars on the full-throated voice and dynamic acting of its star, E. Faye Butler, who also starred at DTC in the Dinah Washington bio-show Dinah Was. She gets every nuance of this homage right: the precise diction and phrasing Ella Fitzgerald was known for, the complicated jazz-scatting using nonsense syllables instead of lyrics, and the big notes belted with such wide-open ferocity they seem to bend molecules midair. Butler's performance of the Gershwin torch song "The Man I Love" is the showstopper. She sings it. She acts it. She lives it. She is to die for in this role.

 Over at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Denise Lee is playing a Billie Holiday in much worse shape than Butler's Ella Fitzgerald. Writer Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill finds the singer on the downside of stardom and just months from death. It's 1959, and because she's done eight months of prison time for a felony narcotics rap, a broke and broken Holiday has been barred from the swank Manhattan clubs where she reigned in the 1940s and '50s.

 Reduced to singing for drinks and tips, she's been booked into Emerson's, a smoky Philadelphia dive. Offstage she's heard saying "I can't go on," and she wanders out through the audience—arranged around candlelit café tables at CTD—before climbing the steps to the microphone in front of her trio (conductor-pianist Joe Rogers, drummer Charles E. Dunlap and bassist Chris White).

 DTC's Ella re-creates a smart, polished concert in a 1,000-seat venue. On designer Wade Giampa's dingy, brick-walled set at CTD, Lady Day (directed by Phyllis Cicero) plunges the audience into a murky juke-joint where it hurts to see the star slumming. The atmospheres of these shows are as different as the stars' temperaments.

 What the productions have in common is the fine work of their leads. As Billie Holiday, Lee, a longtime fave on musical theater and cabaret stages in Dallas, doesn't have to attempt a spot-on impression to get the job done. She has a voice you could warm your hands on, whether singing as herself or in character. It's a stretch to accept her as the strung-out Holiday, even with the gardenia in her slicked-back hair. She's too robust to be a junkie. But toward the midpoint of the two-hour show, she clicks directly into the essence of Holiday.

 It happens as she eases into one of Billie Holiday's best-known songs, the haunting "Strange Fruit," from the poem by Abel Meeropol about lynching in the South. Here Lee gets closest to Holiday's sound, her own clear, rich voice giving way to Holiday's ragged rasp. She teases the tempo the way Holiday did and curls up, over and around the notes.

 From that point on, Lee is Lady Day. In the second act, she slurs and wobbles—which makes the music even sadder—as if she'd gone backstage at intermission to shoot up in utter despair. As the lights go down, we see Billie Holiday silently mouthing words, already a ghostly figure.

 See these shows for the music, for the soulful singing and acting, to be reminded who Ella and Lady Day were and why they were loved. It's a strange but happy coincidence that for a few weeks in February we can be right there with them as the ladies sing the blues.

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