The second floor of La MaMa E.T.C. is now a smoke-filled gin-joint for the atmospheric new concept cabaret play, Lady/Speak/Easy, a music rich night in the life of singer Billie Holiday, continuing through Feb. 13.
The new play, written and directed by Sean Power, began Jan. 27 and is described as "a jazz-filled immersion experience in which the audience is invited into an after-hours nightclub [to hear] the music of Lady Day and her band, including many of her signature songs."
The staging at La Mama E.T.C. in New York City's Greenwich Village is complete with a jazz quintet, cigarette girls, comedy sketches from the nightclub milieu and music galore.
The first lady of jazz is played by Bemshi Shearer, and she's joined by a multi-ethnic cast of actors and musicians playing "hep-kats and kittens, patrons, pimps, police, cigarette girls and audience," according to productions notes. There are plays-within-the-play, including a burlesque comedy show in the style of Abbott and Costello. The act features an imaginary duo, Pod and Jerry, who perform "Who's On First"-style routines that riff on Billie Holiday's name and the street synonyms for the drugs that ruled the clubs.
The musicians represent (but don't imitate) many people from Holiday's past: friends and lovers such as Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Monroe, Lester Young and Joey Guy. The music for Lady/Speak/Easy is being coordinated and directed by Michael "Small Change" Johnson.
Writer director Power, whose staging is filled with choices meant to blur the line between actor and audience, is a veteran of numerous Canadian theatre companies, including the Stratford Festival. He recently appeared at La MaMa in the musical Jews & Jesus. Production executives are Rohana Kenin and Peri Winkler.
Bemshi Shearer (Billie Holiday) was born in an after-hours club on Manhattan's East Side and is daughter of noted jazz musician Oliver Shearer (who also knew Holiday). She has sung and written arrangements with Abbey Lincoln, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Pat Metheny, John Hicks, Clifford Jordan, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Big Nick Nicolas, Liza Minnelli, Barry White, Sting, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel and James Taylor, to name a few.
She recorded a CD called "Womanchild" for Capitol Records which was critically acclaimed and defied categorization. She has performed two of her own songs on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" and her video has aired on BET.
The cast also includes Abiola Wendy Abrams, Patrick Michael Buckley, Ron L. Cox, Michael Johnson, Kwana Martinez, Scott McNeil, Alex Parisien, Charles Parnell, David Paterson, Shawn Seymour and Malcolm Smith. Set design is by Douglas Davis. Lighting design is by Matthew O'Neill. Wardrobe design is by Al Ribaya.
Tickets are $12. La MaMa E.T.C. (The Club) is at 74A East Fourth Street in Manhattan. Call (212) 475-7710 for information.
-- By Kenneth Jones