She was a substance abusing, rough-around-the-edges blues singer, he a dapper star of the silver screen. The life stories of Billie Holiday and Humphrey Bogart are currently unfolding at The Whitefire Theatre in “Billie and Bogie,” two solo shows packaged as one evening of legendary entertainers telling all.
Holiday (Synthia L. Hardy) kicks off the show by stomping on stage amidst a temper tantrum riddled with expletives. She proceeds to walk us through her unpleasant childhood, detailing sexual abuse, the failings of a mostly absentee father, and time spent at the House of Good Shepherd, a facility for troubled African American girls. But a singing career soon swept Holiday into stage stardom.
Though she reached acclaim at the tender age of 18, her career was one big fight for acceptance and equality. Orchestra leader Artie Shaw insisted on her presence in his all-white outfit, but Holiday often suffered the brutal barbs of racism when she took to the stage as one of the first African American females singing alongside white musicians.
Hardy’s best moments come when she imagines Holiday’s frustration over the mean-spirited racists attempting to trample on her talent. Pulling no punches, the actress gives Holiday a hateful defensive streak that seems deadly accurate considering the story of the troubled singer’s life. It’s also a pleasure to hear Holiday’s songs belted with alternating bursts of gusto and melancholic malaise. Particularly poignant is “God Bless the Child,” while “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do” gives Hardy a chance to hint at Lady Day’s playfulness.
Somewhat problematic is the fact that in real life Holiday channeled the troubles of her misused soul into song, so it doesn’t always feel accurate to see her baring her soul in words. Her music is so fraught with feeling that we almost don’t want her to spill her guts in any other medium but song.
When Humphrey Bogart (Dan Spector) takes the stage, it’s Oscar night, 1952. He has just won a trophy for “African Queen,” and he spends the bulk of his stage time talking to the inanimate Oscar about his troubles. Does he really deserve the award over Marlon Brando? Are his multiple failed marriages to out-of-control women indictors of a life poorly lived?
It’s a one-hour self reflection that’s a mixed bag of attention-holding drama. Spector is fun to watch, but Bogie has been done by so many other imitators that you can’t help but tire of the old routine after a while. But tidbits about the slack-lipped icon are enough to hold the audience’s interest for the duration, and Spector is clearly committed to the character, even if it’s been done before.
Through August 22 at The Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks. Call (323)960-4418
Amy Lyons is a professional freelance journalist and theatre critic, with a degree in Theatre Arts and English from UMass, Boston. She started her journalism career at The Boston Globe. Her articles, theatre reviews and photos regularly appear in numerous publications, including the Beverly Press, Valley Life Magazine, the Santa Monica Mirror and www.nohoartsdistrict.com