You rarely hear the word chanteuse anymore, but that fluidly perfect descriptive word, which in actuality is simply a French derivative of the term for a female singer, kept going over and over in my mind while watching Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva's stirring performance as blues legend Billie Holiday in Murfreesboro Center for the Arts' current production of 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill', which concludes Saturday, June 14 after three sold-out weekends.
There's just something about the word 'chanteuse' that infers a little more than say, 'girl singer'. It basically means the same, but somehow it implies more. That makes it absolutely fitting when talking about the legendary Holiday, or young Whitcomb-Oliva, who's legendary status in Nashville's theatre world is on an inevitable rise. In a music world filled with over-produced instrumentation, unnecessary Carey-esque vocal trills and autotune, to refer to either Whitcomb-Oliva, or the legend she has brought to life in 'Lady Day', as simply girl singers would be reductive. After all, in both cases, when all else is stripped away, you're still blessed with unfathomable vocal talent. In both cases, there's so much more at the core than what you first see.
I've had the pleasure of seeing Whitcomb-Oliva in a number of roles over the past few years, and like the true artist she is, with each role she takes on, she turns in a truly riveting performance. That said, while witnessing her performance as Holiday, I truly felt honored to be in her presence, even more than usual. Audra McDonald may have just won the Tony for her Broadway portrayal in this very same piece, but I honestly don't see how she could be any better than Whitcomb-Oliva. From the first lines of 'Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer) to the final notes of 'Don't Explain', Whitcomb-Oliva's performance is truly transformative. When I say transformative, I don't just mean she nicely mimics the icon's much-copied speaking voice with its snake-like hiss, or that she has manipulated her always buttery singing voice to sound like the legend. She becomes Holiday.
Thanks, in part, to staging the show in Murfreesboro Center For the Arts' more intimate gallery, rather than their larger traditional space, the audience is easily transported to a small nightclub in the not-so-nice part of Philly as one of the most honest voices ever to grace American popular music reveals the sadness behind the success. In my mind I knew it was Whitcomb-Oliva, but in my heart, it truly felt like I was experiencing a brutally honest, emotionally draining, physically exhausting late-career performance of a women clinging to a life she never truly had the chance to enjoy.
Before the audience's eyes, Whitcomb-Oliva takes them on the blissfully melodic yet tragically sad journey that exposes Holiday's rise to fame and simultaneous descent into drugs, alcohol, with hardship and disappointment never fully forgotten.
In addition to expected favorites like 'God Bless The Child', 'Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do', 'Easy Living' and 'Them There Eyes', 'Lady Day' also showcases lesser-known, but equally brilliant versions of 'I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone', 'Crazy She Calls Me', 'Baby Doll' and more. Between each, as Holiday pours herself drink after drink, she also pours out her heart, revealing uneasy relationships with her parents, her lovers and most painfully, herself.
'Lady Day' also boasts performances by a first-class ensemble featuring Konson Rodre Patton, Carrington Edwards, Jessie Warrick and understudy Alexa Poiter, who took to the stage as Lady Day on Friday, June 13, All accompanied by backing band members: Stefan Forbus, David Dismuke & Darius Salazar. Directed by David Ragland, this weekend's final performance of 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill' (in the Gallery at Murfreesboro Center For the Arts, 110 College Street, just off the square in Murfreesboro, TN) is sure to be another sold-out show. At press time, a select number of tickets remain. CLICK HERE to purchase tickets, or call 615.904.2787. Up next on the main stage at Murfreesboro Center for the Arts is 'Your A Good Man Charlie Brown'. CLICK HERE to purchase tickets, or for more information.
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