When Laniece Fagundes took on the role of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” the play that opens City Repertory Theatre’s 11th season on Sept. 17, she faced a crossroads: How much should she attempt to imitate the inimitable, legendary jazz singer?
Turns out the 32-year-old performer and voice teacher has a lot in common with Lady Day . . . just not vocally.
“She has a very interesting tone and a very interesting voice,” says Fagundes, a City Rep veteran who has performed in “Hairspray,” “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and numerous other musicals since the troupe’s founding. “Her voice is very difficult to emulate.”
Indeed. Many hear Holiday’s turbulent life – the attempted rape she suffered at age 12, her dysfunctional, abusive adult relationships, her encounters with racism as a Black woman singing at times with white orchestras, her drug and alcohol addictions – reflected in her vocal artistry, her song choices and the now vulnerable, now spry high timbre of her voice.
Such a luminary as jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis downplays the effects of such biography, at least on Holiday’s vocal stylings. Yet the voice of Lady Day – a nickname given her by her saxophonist friend Lester Young – possesses the precocious seductiveness, and victimization, of Nabokov’s Lolita; the impish, sly sexuality, and some of the cutesy vocal timbre, of Betty Boop (yes, the 1930s cartoon character); and the world-weariness of someone who ran errands for a brothel at age 12, became subdued by alcohol and heroin addiction for much of her adult life, and served a year in jail on a narcotics conviction before dying in 1959 at age 44.
“I went for it at first and it felt unnatural,” Fagundes says of her inclination to imitate Holiday’s voice. “It felt like it wouldn’t do it justice. It would be my feeble attempt (laughs) at copying her voice versus embodying what she was about, what her music is about and what her life was about. I think I could do it more justice that way versus trying to very minutely emulate her.”
Written by Lanie Robertson, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” premiered in 1986 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and landed Off-Broadway soon after. The show didn’t debut on Broadway until 2014, when Audra McDonald won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Holiday.
Set in 1959 a few months before Holiday’s death, Robertson’s semi-fictionalized work imagines one of Lady Day’s last performances, in a seedy South Philadelphia bar, as she’s accompanied by a pianist. It’s a two-person play with music rather than a musical, given that the Holiday character delivers lengthy, revelatory monologues between performing such songs as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and the classics “God Bless the Child” and the chilling “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of Black people in the American South.
“I became more connected to her reading her story, in reading about what happened to her,” says Fagundes, who was born in Queens, N.Y., but moved to Palm Coast at age 5 with her family in 1994. “A lot of it resonates with me personally, so that kind of made me connect more to the music. Things she went through: Her mother passing — my mom has also passed. I also was assaulted as a child. Loving somebody who’s absolutely terrible for you and ultimately you feel has ruined your life – I’ve been there, done that. I also struggled with alcohol addiction – I’ve been sober for three years. So I just really took a hold of her story. A lot of it hit home. A lot of it. That made me gravitate more personally towards her music.”
Music director and City Rep veteran Ben Beck, who plays piano as Jimmy Powers, Holiday’s accompanist, says Lady Day’s music possesses “this depth even if you don’t know the story, and this show pulls back the curtain a little bit and helps us understand where that depth is coming from.”
Revealing that depth, Beck adds, requires “an artist instead of an impersonator, because an impersonation is never going to have the kind of emotional connection that you can have if you are bringing what you have to the table.”
Director and City Rep co-founder John Sbordone says, “The music is Billie Holiday’s, the style is hers, but we are not trying to mimic her. We are trying to get the essence of who she was in this brilliant play. Billie does as much talking as she does singing, so you get inside her and see what it was like in these last moments of her life.
“Laniece is one of our extraordinary best voices – she’s brilliant. And Ben Beck – I’ve said it 100 times: In my 50 years in theater, I have not worked with a better pianist-music director.”
This “play with music” is presenting new challenges to both performers.
For Fagundes, who runs Created Sound, a Palm Coast-based music and performing arts studio, “Lady Day” will be the most she has ever acted, as opposed to singing, in a play.
“I had a couple of monologues in ‘Working’ (a CRT production), and I a few lead roles in high school productions, but this is a novelty for me,” she says. “I could tell the story and that would be just fine, but Bille Holiday has a way that she speaks, she has a cadence and a rhythm to her voice. The vernacular that she uses is really important and so I am working really hard at getting that part. I embrace challenge though. I love challenge. Put me in the fire and I blossom.”
Sbordone interjects: “Ben knows this and you (Fagundes) probably know this too — because you’re a great singer, because you embody the music and the lyrics and the song, you’ve been doing acting all along.”
“Sure, but this is just sans music,” Fagundes laughs.
Beck, a Michigan native and current Jacksonville-area resident, is a former middle school music teacher who now works as a freelance musician as well as an English teacher for Chinese children. He’s served as music director for such City Rep productions as “Working,” “Next to Normal,” “Songs for a New World” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
While he’s had on-stage roles in “Hello, Dolly!” and “Working,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” will be “the first time I’ve been a character from beginning to end,” he says. “It’s a well-written show. It’s a good re-creation of real-life experiences I’ve had in this kind of setting where you’re playing at a cabaret with someone you’ve been together with for five months, or sometimes I’m doing stuff and I’ve met the person the night before or even met them that day.
“This play feels . . . it feels natural, even though I have specific lines. It doesn’t feel put on, It’s not ham. I’m not some observational character who’s looking in – it’s a moment that we’re sharing for two hours.”
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive
City Repertory Theatre stages “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday Sept. 17-18 and 24-25, and at 3 p.m. Sunday Sept. 19 and 26. Performances will be in CRT’s black box theater at City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207, Palm Coast. Tickets: $30 adults, $15 students, available online at eventbrite.com, by calling 386-585-9415, or at the venue just before showtime. The play contains mature language.
A season pass, which includes six of CRT’s eight scheduled shows, is $120.
Concerning Covid protocols, CRT director John Sbordone said he is in frequent contact with Dr. Stephen Bickel, medical director at the Flagler County Health Department, and the theater will “stay on top of all of the recommendations that are coming out of the county” concerning masks and social distancing.
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