Being Billie: Laniece Fagundes stars as jazz singer Lady Day as the City Repertory Theater opens its 11th season

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Laniece Fagundes stars as legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in the City Repertory Theater production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”. (Mike Kataif)

When Laniece Fagundes took on the role of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” the opening play for the City Repertory Theater’s 11the season on September 17, she faced a crossroads: how much should she attempt to emulate the inimitable and legendary jazz singer?

As it turns out, the 32-year-old singer and singer has a lot in common with Lady Day. . . just not vocally.

“She has a very interesting tone and a very interesting voice,” said Fagundes, a City Rep veteran who starred in “Hairspray”, “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”, “Jesus Christ Superstar” and many other musicals since the founding of the troupe. “His voice is very difficult to imitate.”

Indeed. Many hear of Holiday’s hectic life – the attempted rape she suffered at age 12, her dysfunctional and abusive relationships with adults, her encounters with racism as a black woman sometimes singing with white orchestras. , his drug and alcohol addictions – are reflected in his vocal art, his choice of songs and the now vulnerable high tone, now lively of his voice.

A luminary such as jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis downplays the effects of such a biography, at least on Holiday’s vocal styles. Yet Lady Day’s voice – a nickname given to her by her saxophonist friend Lester Young – possesses the precocious seduction, and victimization, of Nabokov’s Lolita; the mischievous, underhanded sexuality and part of the cutesy vocal timbre of Betty Boop (yes, the cartoon character from the 1930s); and the weariness of the world of someone who went shopping for a brothel at the age of 12, became dominated by alcohol and heroin addiction for much of their adult life and served one year in prison for a narcotics conviction before dying in 1959 at the age of 44.

“I went there at first and it didn’t feel natural to me,” Fagundes says of his urge to emulate Holiday’s voice. “I felt like it wouldn’t do him justice. It would be my weak attempt (laughs) to copy her voice rather than embody what she was, what her music and her life are. I think I could do him more justice that way rather than trying to imitate him very thoroughly. “

Written by Lanie Robertson, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” premiered in 1986 at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta and landed on Broadway soon after. The show didn’t make its Broadway debut 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-fictional work imagines one of Lady Day’s last performances, in a seedy South Philadelphia bar, accompanied by a pianist. . It’s a two-person play with music rather than a musical, as Holiday’s character delivers lengthy, revealing monologues between the renditions of songs such 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 icy” Strange Fruit “, about the lynching of blacks in the southern United States. United.

“I became more connected to her reading her story, reading what happened to her,” says Fagundes, who was born in Queens, NY, but moved to Palm Coast at the age of 5 with her family. in 1994. “A lot of it touches me personally, which allowed me to connect more with music. Things she experienced: Her mother passed away – my mother also passed away. I was also assaulted when I was a kid. Loving someone who is absolutely terrible to you and who in the end seems to have ruined your life – I was there, I did it. I also struggled with addiction alcohol – I’ve been sober for three years. So I really got hold of her story. A lot of it hit home. A lot. It made me gravitate more personally to her music.

City Rep’s music director and veteran Ben Beck, who plays the piano as Holiday accompanist Jimmy Powers, says Lady Day’s music has “that depth even if you don’t know the story, and this show pulls the curtain a little and helps us understand where this depth comes from.

Revealing that depth, Beck adds, requires “an artist instead of an impersonator, because impersonation will never have the kind of emotional connection you can have if you bring what you have to the table.”

City Rep director and co-founder John Sbordone says, “The music is Billie Holiday’s, the style is hers, but we’re not trying to emulate her. We’re trying to get the essence of who she was in this shiny room. Billie talks as much as she sings, so you step inside her and see what it was like in those last moments of her life.

“Laniece is one of our best amazing voices – she’s brilliant. And Ben Beck, I have said it 100 times: in 50 years of theater, I have not worked with a better pianist-musical director.

This “game with music” presents new challenges to the two 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 performed, as opposed to vocals, in a room.

“I’ve had a few monologues in ‘Working’ (a CRT production), and I’ve had a few lead roles in high school productions, but it’s new to me,” she says. “I could tell the story and that would be great, but Bille Holiday has a way of speaking, she has a cadence and a rhythm for her voice. The vernacular she uses is really important so I’m working really hard to get this role. I embrace the challenge though. I like the challenge. Put me in the fire and I flourish.

Sbordone intervenes: “Ben knows it and you (Fagundes) probably know it too – because you’re a great singer, because you embody the music, the lyrics and the song, you’ve always played.”

“Sure, but it’s just no music,” laughs Fagundes.

Beck, originally from Michigan and current resident of the Jacksonville area, is a former college music teacher who now works as a freelance musician as well as an English teacher for Chinese children. He has served as Music Director for City Rep productions such as “Working”, “Next to Normal”, “Songs for a New World” and “Little Shop of Horrors”.

While he had roles on stage in “Hello, Dolly!” and “Work,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” will be “the first time I’ve been a character from start to finish,” he says. “It’s a well-written show. It’s a good recreation of real-life experiences I’ve had in this kind of setting where you play in a cabaret with someone you’ve been together with for five months, or sometimes I do stuff and I ‘I met the person the day before or even met that day.

“This room feels. . . it seems natural, even though I have specific lines. He doesn’t feel worn out, it’s not ham. I’m not an observational watching character – it’s a moment we share for two hours.

–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive

The City Repertory Theater stages “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays September 17-18 and 24-25, and at 3:00 p.m. on Sundays September 19 and 26. Performances will take place 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 on site just before show time. The play contains mature language.

A season pass, which includes six of CRT’s eight scheduled shows, costs $ 120.

Regarding Covid protocols, CRT director John Sbordone said he was in frequent contact with Dr Stephen Bickel, medical director of the Flagler County Department of Health, and that the theater “would keep abreast of all the recommendations coming out of the county “regarding masks and social distancing.

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