Close your eyes and envision yourself taking a seat at the legendary jazz club, Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub in 1939. There’s a quartet of seasoned jazz musicians playing on stage; bass, drums, sax and piano as a beautiful black woman with one giant gardenia in her hair walks slowly up to the mic and a most beautiful, haunting voice sings a powerful “Strange Fruit”. Such is the experience of seeing “Billie Holiday: Front and Center” now playing at Fremont Centre Theatre. Sybil Harris stars as the troubled singer who transformed jazz singing forever with her unique voice and style of vocal improvisation. She tells Holiday’s life story through a series of vignettes where she plays most of the parts with a couple of the musicians taking on roles of a few men in her life. It’s a clever way to keep the whole evening intimate so that it’s really just Holiday on stage with her four musicians.
The play takes us from Holiday’s troubled and abusive childhood in Philadelphia to her rise through Harlem nightclubs to recording contracts to becoming the first black woman to ever sing with Artie Shaw’s orchestra. She sang with all the greats of her day from Count Basie to Duke Ellington and was given the name Lady Day by saxophonist Lester Young because of her sophistication and grace in song. She became known for her poignant, expressive voice that she used like an instrument. Harris, who also wrote the show, and B’Anca, the director, do not shy away from the darker side of Holiday’s story as we see the singer fall victim to abusive men and powerful drug addiction.
But it is Holiday’s voice that transcends her sad story and Harris has the pipes and vocal stylings to make you feel like you’ve been transported to an intimate concert in the 1940’s. The various concert sequences are among the strongest moments from her timid audition all the way to her triumphant sold out concert at Carnegie Hall. Harris’ voice is smooth as silk while also delivering the necessary vulnerability that was Holiday’s trademark. She delivers a particularly stirring rendition of “Strange Fruit”, which is stunning in it’s audacity given the time. The fact that she used her singular vocal gifts to deliver a message about the lynching of her people in this country is a testament to her convictions and talent. Everyone will recognize every song here from “My Man” to “God Bless the Child”, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and many more, again underscoring her tremendous influence on the music world.
Ms Harris has four extremely gifted musicians with her on stage featuring the piano stylings of Cassey McCoy who is also the music director, the syncopated rhythms of Fritz Wise on drums, the smooth, driving upright bass of Michael Saucier and the swinging jazz tone of David Patterson on the sax.
Billie Holiday was never able to overcome her demons and she succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver at age 44, however her illustrious career took her from small clubs in Harlem to the most famous stages around the world and her influence on music is immeasurable. “Billie Holiday: Front and Center” gives modern audiences a chance to glimpse what it may have been like to witness her greatness in person.
Billie Holiday: Front and Center plays this weekend Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at Fremont Centre Theatre. 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena. $30. $15 students. Tickets are available at the door or by calling (800) 838-3006 or at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2499741