Billie Holiday had it all and lost it all. From her earliest days to her final moments, writer and star Sybil Harris lets the audience sneak a peek at the life and times of Billie Holiday in BILLIE HOLIDAY: FRONT AND CENTER, a dramatic account of Billy Holiday’s life. A trail-blazing musical artist sometimes called Lady Day, Billie Holiday has a respectable list of firsts. She was the first black female vocalist to front for a white band, that of Artie Shaw. She was the first female vocalist to use her voice for jazz improvisation. She had multiple jazz and blues hit recordings. She sang to sold-out houses at Carnegie Hall three times. And, sad to say, she was one of the first famous black female vocalists to succumb to the lure of heroin.
Billie Holiday was born into poverty, the victim of rape as a child. Because of her chaotic childhood, she was unable to attend school. Consequently, she was sentenced by the Court to a Catholic correctional institution for delinquents when only nine years old. When she was 13 years old, she was convicted with her mother of prostitution and again sent to jail. Her life seemed to be on a downward spiral. And yet somehow she was able to overcome these obstacles and rise from poor beginnings to become a musical legend.
Playwright/actor/singer Sybil Harris does a moving and sensitive job of sharing Billie Holiday’s triumphs and failures. She has cloned Ms. Holiday to a tee – including Billie’s style, vocal pitch, and rhythms. But more importantly, she delves into the core of Billie’s soul to extricate her fears and flaws. Those very things which made her great also led to her personal downfall. When she was only 42 years old and at the pinnacle of her career, she died of cirrhosis of the liver.
Director and production stage manager B’anca does an excellent job of moving the story along and keeping the focus where it should be – on Billie Holiday’s music. Music director Casey McCoy and his jazz combo (Fritz Wise, drums; Michael Saucier, upright bass; David Patterson, sax) have a sure feel for the music, whether they’re backing up Sybil Harris or doing some solo work. Kenneth Williams’ sound, of course, enhances the show. The entire cast and production team do a great job of keeping Billie Holiday’s legacy alive. This is a presentation meant for all those jazz lovers out there – but also for those theater patrons who hope to understand what makes other people tick.
BILLIE HOLIDAY: FRONT AND CENTER runs through December 3, 2017, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center is located at 4305 Degnan Blvd., Suite 101, Los Angeles, CA 90008. Tickets are $30 ($25 seniors). For information and reservations, call 800-838-3006 or go online.