One Night with Billie & Ella at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen through March 27
If you want to enjoy 75 minutes of music from the Great American Songbook performed by a pair of local songstresses channeling two of America’s musical icons, then head to the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen before One Night with Billie & Ella finishes its run on Sunday, March 27.
Written and directed by Brittany Williams, One Night features sixteen songs associated with either Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. And what songs they are! Duke Ellington’s bouncy Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. Cole Porter’s suggestive My Heart Belongs to Daddy, considered “racy” in its day. And the still devastating Strange Fruit.
Though Holiday and Fitzgerald never actually performed together, Williams’ streamlined book imagines such a joint concert. Dialog is kept to a minimum with no intrusive biographical bits (other than that Holiday was two years older than Fitzgerald, a fact deftly layered in), just some small talk and a bit of friendly rivalry between them, clearly manufactured but funny in an old-fashioned way.
As director, Williams takes a very straightforward, stand-and-sing approach for the most part, keeping the focus on the music. There are no directorial flourishes, just pure entertainment done simply and smoothly. And why would you want anything else when the music and singers are so good?
Kathleen Moore and Chloé Marie Johnson as, respectively, Holiday and Fitzgerald do not attempt photostatic impressions of these legends but convey their essences, Fitzgerald a little more demure, Holiday a smidge edgier.
With her silky vocalizations, Moore offers us an assured Holiday, long before her addictions got the better of her as might be seen in such works as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Johnson, a performer new to me, captures Fitzgerald’s sound with a timbre to her voice similar to the “Queen of Jazz”. And as demonstrated in Cheek to Cheek, Johnson possesses a talent for scat singing that does full justice to Fitzgerald’s inimitable technique.
Together, Moore and Johnson combine their creamy voices beautifully and playfully in such duets as Give Me the Simple Life, Willow Weep for Me, and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. When two such gorgeously talented songbirds are on stage, I could listen to them all night.
Leading a topnotch jazzy trio from his piano, Musical Director Harry Mayronne keeps the tempos swinging and the rhythms grooving from start to finish as would be expected from a pro like him.
That’s about all that needs be said about One Night with Billie & Ella. Except for one thing.
About halfway through the show, when Holiday and Fitzgerald have temporarily retired to their simple dressing room (on the side of the stage), Williams drops in a line about their wariness performing in front of an integrated audience in the South, presumably in the late 1940s or early ‘50s.
While unquestionably valid, this revelation comes out of nowhere and is never referenced again; it almost suggests that Williams may have wanted to create a show with a more penetrating focus but then, for one reason or another, it morphed into the presentation at hand.
I’d be very interested in seeing a show about the combustible situations that could have caused such trepidation and fears in these trailblazing entertainers. Perhaps Another Night with Billie & Ella?
[For tickets and more information, go to https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/one-night-billie-ella]
Recently seen at Le Petit, The House That Will Not Stand, Marcus Gardley’s adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, offered powerful drama but only after an overlong, exposition-stuffed first act.
Reset in an Esplanade Avenue mansion in the early 1800s, as French control of New Orleans was about to be turned over to the Americans, House proffered an examination of plaçage, a system by which free women of color entered into contractual agreements to serve as mistresses of white men.
House also dealt with familial battles, colorism, mental illness, and, especially, various types of freedom, from economic to spiritual to actual human bondage. All of these are vital themes; one wishes Gardley could’ve juggled them a bit more adroitly.
In the cast of seven women, Troi Bechet, as the no-nonsense matriarch Beartrice who desperately wants better lives for her three young daughters, and Tameka Bob, as both the family’s put-upon house slave who hopes to acquire her freedom and, in a mystical transformation, as Beartrice’s now-dead lover come back to life, gave extraordinary, fine-tuned but never overdone performances.
As two of Beartrice’s daughters, Elexis Selmon, the overly pious middle daughter, and Jarell Hamilton, the insecure youngest one, were both very good. Grace Gibson, as the headstrong oldest daughter, however, overplayed her part, inappropriately turning dramatic moments into comic bits.
Like House That Will Not Stand, JPAS’ production earlier this month of Shrek the Musical got bogged down early on as plot was ladled out. Its Act One, however, briefly came to full life when Kiane D. Davis, as the fiery Dragon, lit up the stage with her breathtaking rendition of Forever.
As the script became more involving and the songs turned livelier in the second act, this account of a put-upon ogre, a princess with a secret, and a small multitude of fairy tale characters transformed into quite a delight.
Enrico Cannella’s Shrek paired well with Micah Richerand Desonier’s Princess Fiona; you rooted for their relationship to work out as misunderstandings nearly derailed their incipient romance.
Josiah Rogers as Shrek’s sassy Donkey sidekick and Scott Sauber’s evil Lord Farquaad, a villain you loved to hate, added to the merriment.
With book and lyrics by David (Rabbit Hole) Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine (Fun Home) Tesori, Shrek, their first collaboration, has its charms but you may just want to stick with the 2001 Oscar-winning movie version of William Steig’s 1990 picture book.
Their newest creation, the musical Kimberly Akimbo, however, significantly improves upon and adds to Lindsay-Abaire’s dramedy of the same name. It’s scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall. You won’t want to miss it.
It’s always satisfying when first impressions, at least positive ones, are confirmed. This happened recently on local stages. In fact, twice.
Last November, I saw Jared Goudsmit as the director in Tulane’s Trouble in Mind. He gave a passionate, gnarly performance in Alice Childress’ probing backstage drama about race relations.
This Tulane senior recently appeared on the uptown campus in Antigone as Kreon, the mythological ruler of Thebes who would deny the burial of Antigone’s brother Polynices. Beginning the play sure of himself, Kreon goes on a journey of self-awareness.
With his sonorous voice, Goudsmit started off unbending, certain in his rulings, unwilling to listen to others. By the end, as Kreon, humbled, begins to realize the cost of his inflexibility, Goudsmit choked on his words, creating a portrait of a broken man whose soul is going through a galvanic adjustment as he begins to comprehend the consequences of his actions.
With a complex delicacy, Goudsmit calibrated to stunning effect just how much of Kreon’s assurance and bearing he could let go of as the tragedy tumbled to its conclusion and this now-tortured King was left looking into an existential abyss. I’ll not soon forget Goudsmit’s memorable turn.
When UNO did Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice a year ago, I noted that “With his strong, solid presence, Drew Stroud manifested deep paternal concern as Eurydice’s Father with subtle conviction.”
Stroud, a second year graduate student in UNO’s theater program, just completed a run in Justin Maxwell’s new one-act play Exhausted Paint: The Death of Van Gogh, also at UNO.
While there have been many works about the renowned post-Impressionist artist, Maxwell’s script is unique. Other than its beginning and ending passages, its twelve inner sections are done in a different order each performance, their sequence determined by randomly chosen audience members before the start of the show.
Stroud inhabited this hour-long monolog flawlessly, occasionally interacting with folks in the front rows with confidence and bravado. His van Gogh questioned his place in the world, the value of his art, and what he gave up to achieve what he did.
If Maxwell may not have covered any new ground (yes, we know van Gogh sold only one canvas in his lifetime and now they go for millions and millions of dollars) and one or two of the sections could be omitted as a slight sense of repetitiousness accrues after a while, I’d certainly be interested in attending Exhausted Paint again, not only to see how a different ordering affects the piece’s effect, but to have the opportunity to take more in from this dense work.
And to see Stroud again. Cocksure but insecure, spiritual but not religious, charming but off-putting, his dazzling portrait of an artist as a youngish man, regardless of the order of the sections it seems to me, took us on an involving journey to a deeply emotional conclusion. Like Goudsmit’s Kreon, I expect to remember Stroud’s van Gogh for a long, long time.
As these two young actors move on from their university settings, I wish them all the best and hope that one day, as they trod the boards in New York or in front of Hollywood’s cameras, I’ll be able to muse, “I saw them when.”