An Audience with Billie Holiday

Robert Chuter

This is a great production (produced by Arts Events Australia) made up of great elements that don’t quite add up.
An Audience with Billie Holiday

Falling short of seeing the great lady herself, this production of An Audience With Billie Holiday represents my second live Billie Holiday experience, following Fly-On-The-Wall Theatre’s Lady Sings the Blues with the incomparable Ruth Rogers-Wright at The Butterfly Club in 2006.

Seeing a return of Lady Day’s story to the Melbourne stage is certainly more than welcome. Obviously, having never witnessed a performance of Billie herself one can only assume, but the phenomenal performance from cabaret performer Mama Alto, captures exactly one’s idea of the Ms. Holiday experience. It’s disappointing that the show in total doesn’t quite keep up with the central performance.

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But what a central performance! Mama Alto, (the stage name of Benny Dimas), captures Holiday’s voice, grace, and soul with aplomb, giving us a woman who has learned stoicism as a survival tool, but the cracks are starting to show. She patches over these with a warm, if rehearsed smile, as she faces every audience of her career. Dimas’ has astonishing control over his vocal register that belies any notions of gender. He embodies Holiday so precisely, it’s breathtaking.

Playwright Neil Cole’s text begins with a series of poetic monologues that introduce us to Holiday’s childhood – one littered with hideous abuse and neglect – before leading into an accompanying song that underscores each chapter of her life. Refusing to indulge in the misery, Cole’s words suggest a woman always looking to the light outside the shadows and they never fail to move or intrigue. That is until the second act, where the writing and the journey takes second place to the showcase of songs, leaving the journey to be left behind in the process, (not to mention the addition of an overlong and unnecessary piano break). As such, the script doesn’t allow us to probe deeper into Holiday’s personality or psyche, giving us a rushed, Wikipedia-style rundown of the later years of her life.

Taking on the tasks of director, MD and pianist, Warren Wills is certainly ambitious and talented, but self-defeating as the direction is stock and lacking imagination. Rob Sowinski’s lighting design is beautifully elegant. In the absence of a set, it evokes everything from the smallest nightclub, to Holiday’s Catholic reformatory school to the splendor of Carnegie Hall with a lyrical touch.

This is a great production (produced by Arts Events Australia) made up of great elements that don’t quite add up. With sharper and more daring direction this could have been a far more brilliant show than it is. That being said, it’s not without its far share of excellence and if we can’t have Billie Holiday, I’m more than happy to with Mama Alto (it’s almost the same thing).

Rating: 3½ out of 5 stars

An Audience with Billie Holiday

Written by Neil Cole
Featuring Mama Alto as Billie
Direction and Music Direction by Warren Wills
Presented by Arts Events Australia

The Loft, Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
www.chapeloffchapel.com.au
7-25 May
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Robert Chuter is a Melbourne theatre and film director and who has given audiences over 250 +complex, controversial and visually rich productions to date. His debut feature, The Dream Children, was released internationally in 2015.