Tucked under the arches of one of the busiest railway bridges in London, the Charing Cross Theatre (formerly The Players Theatre) is the ideal venue for a one-woman show about Billie Holiday. A comfortable, intimate space, Nina Kristofferson (pictured left) it quickly morphs into a 1950s jazz club when Nina Kristofferson takes the stage in the persona of Billie Holiday. As nearly every person in the audience has a preconceived view of Billie Holiday – her appearance, her vocal style, her life story – against which they will measure her performance, this is no mean challenge.
Up-tempo songs, 'A Fine Romance' and 'There Is No Greater Love' break the ice and Billie Holiday is soon chatting to the audience as if to a friend, reflecting on her childhood, the moments of joy, the warm relationship with her mother, the absence of her guitarist father, her vulnerability. She talks frankly about the gradual realisation of her lowly status in society, racial discrimination as an ever-present barrier to her advancement, the sexual abuse she experienced from men as a girl, her desire to find an honest, reliable man. After singing 'My Man' and 'God Bless the Child', she remarks that these are simply her way of expressing her feelings about her life so far. Her transformational moment was the discovery that she really could sing and that when she sang truly from the heart she gained not only the love and admiration of her audiences but financial independence and entry into a fast-lane life in the entertainment industry. Songs like 'All of Me', 'Easy Living', 'Don’t Explain' and 'Fine and Mellow' track the good times and the perils of this lifestyle.
A five-piece band is on stage throughout, directed by pianist Allan Rogers. The line-up may vary but is generally Albert Garza (sax/clarinet), Martin Shaw or George Hogg (trumpet), Geoff Gascoyne or Phil Donnelly (bass) and Oliver Patrick (drums). The arrangements are all in the period and similar to those of the original recordings and the soloists, saxophonist Albert Garza in particular, all play in the style of the period – no Coltrane or Brecker licks here!
By the end of the first act Kristofferson has become Billie Holiday vocally with all her idiosyncrasies and inflexions and is equally convincing visually, complete with Holiday’s trademark gardenia in her hair. The second act charts her success and decline against the background of her increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol and her impermanent relationships with men, skilfully integrating the songs into this tragic story: 'That Ole Devil Called Love', 'Good Morning Heartache', 'The Man I Love', 'I Cover the Waterfront', 'Love for Sale' and 'Strange Fruit'.
For anyone with an appreciation of Billie Holiday’s music, this show is a must-see. It is also a tour-de-force for classical actor Nina Kristofferson, who wrote and co-produced it and who brings Holiday back to the stage without sentimentality, portraying her passion for song alongside a faithful account of a difficult and ultimately tragic life.
– Charles Alexander