Charing Cross Theatre, London
Performance date: Friday 17 May 2013
Lady Day is a hard act to follow, and although the UK’s Nina Kristofferson makes a valiant effort at bringing the talented, tortured soul to the stage, she doesn’t pull it off. Kristofferson, along with a 5 piece band, perform Holliday’s hits interspersed with her recounting incidents in her life in a confessional, caberet style. Kristofferson’s voice is excellent, and she certainly captures Holliday’s unique phrasing and stresses. She looked stunning, all in white, pinning in gardenias and ruling the stage, even when (deliberately) sliding off the grand piano.
Fundamentally though, Kristofferson just didn’t have that timbre, that unique tone that Billie had that, which offset against the sometimes strange phrasing, made her songs so heart-breaking. Even “Strange Fruit”, which should have been the moving climax of the show, left me hollow. Jarring too was the fully-fledged Southern accent which Kristofferson affected. While she held character and accent completely throughout the show, the voice was forced and unnatural. The set, of skyscrapers and New York landmarks with painted faces, had a clumsy, folksy feel better suited to a school hall musical.
It probably didn’t help that the audience, on the night I saw it, projected no energy back to the stage, not laughing at jokes or responding to questions for the first half of the show. Perhaps that has come of taking a smaller fringe show into a larger theatre. They only seemed to loosen up once Kristofferson took a slow dance with several of the male audience members towards the end of the first half.
Instead of feeling like this is the closest that we, a 21st Century audience will get to Lady Day, it just made her seem so much more distant, and unique. At no point did everyone and I stop breathing… At least we still have her recordings.