The 90-minute show runs on successive weekends, Sept. 17, 18, 19 and Sept. 24, 25, 26, at City Repertory Theatre in City Marketplace.
When John Sbordone initially approached Laniece Fagundes about playing Billie Holiday in a City Repertory Theatre production, Fagundes didn’t think she was ready.
“I was much younger, and it just didn’t work,” said the 32-year-old Fagundes, “so we’ve been putting it on the backburner for a long time.”
On Friday, Sept. 17, Sbordone’s vision was finally realized as Fagundes debuted as the legendary jazz singer in the Lanie Robertson play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”
The play is running on successive weekends, Sept. 17, 18, 19 and Sept. 24, 25, 26 at CRT in City Marketplace, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite B207.
“Last year we tried to get the rights to (the play) and we couldn’t do it,” said Sbordone, CRT’s artistic director and co-founder. “Then when we finally got the rights, we were able to put the whole thing together, which is great. Laniece is fabulous in this role.”
Robertson’s play premiered in 1986 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and opened on Broadway in 2014. The fictional story takes place in March, 1959, four months before Holiday died.
Emerson’s Bar and Grill is “a seedy little bar,” Sbordone said.
“What the show does is highlight many of her songs, like ‘God Bless the Child’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ along with other songs that she sang famously in her day,” Sbordone said. “But interspersed with that she talks about her life, she talks about her experiences, she talks about her loves. And so, it’s an evening of about an hour and a half that is totally devoted to Billie Holiday and her pianist.”
There are only two people on stage, Fagundes as Holiday and Benjamin Beck, a CRT musical director, who plays Holiday’s pianist, Jimmy Powell.
Fagundes sings all or parts of about 15 songs. But it’s the acting that she found most appealing about the role.
“John always thought it would be a great opportunity for me where I can really act, because I usually do a lot of musicals where there’s not a lot of acting. And I was excited to do it,” she said.
Fagundes, an aspiring recording artist, teaches voice and piano lessons from her home studio in Palm Coast.
"We’re not trying to emulate or impersonate Billie Holiday, but more capture her essence. ... It’s very difficult to impersonate what she did, how she sang, her voice. She has an incredible voice. But you play ode, an homage to her voice."
“I have a few songs on Spotify and itunes, wherever you stream music,” she said. “I’ve got a YouTube channel with almost 200 subscribers, about 12,000 streams and views, something like that. The dream is to move to California, record a bunch of music, tour the world. But in the meantime I’m helping other people find success in their music journeys, and I love that.”
She says she has an eclectic taste in music, listening to everything from international music and contemporary worship to heavy metal. But she never took a deep dive into Holiday’s songs until she started preparing for this show.
“My grandmother is a big fan. She’s really excited that I’m doing this,” Fagundes said. “This kind of gave me a new spark or love for who (Holiday) is and what she does and how talented she is.
“It’s definitely a style that she has, and so we’re not trying to emulate or impersonate Billie Holiday, but more capture her essence, if that makes sense," Fagundes said. "So, it’s not an imitation of who she is or what she did. It’s very difficult to impersonate what she did, how she sang, her voice. She has an incredible voice. But you play ode, an homage to her voice, keeping the tone, keeping the emotion, the intent, a lot of the inflection, but it’s not necessarily an impersonation.”
When Fagundes talks about Holiday it is often in the present tense, which may be fitting because while she doesn’t mimic her voice and singing style, she takes on Holiday’s spirit and captures her emotions which run the gamut from ebullience to desolation.
“I think having directed 75 shows at City Rep, this is among our very, very best,” said Sbordone, who founded the theatre company in 2011 with fellow former Flagler Playhouse cohort Diane Ellertson. “Laniece and Benjamin are brilliant.”