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Drawing On Divas From the Past Dee Dee Bridgewater and Adriane Lenox evoke the legends of jazz and blues

By KENNETH JONES

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Welcome to Building Character, TDF's  on actors and how they create their roles

There isn't a cigarette girl or a cigar in sight, but you can almost imagine spectral blue smoke surrounding the two Tony Award-winning actresses currently evoking a bygone era of African-American nightclub culture on separate stages in New York City. In Broadway's After Midnight and Off-Broadway's Lady Day, Adriane Lenox and Dee Dee Bridgewater, respectively, exist in an atmosphere so thick with moody jazz and hazy blues that their stages seem set for the conjuring of spirits.

In Lady Day, writer-director Stephen Stahl's backstage musical about tragic blues singer Billie Holiday, Bridgewater (who won her Tony for playing Glinda in The Wiz) makes her star entrance through the stage door of a London theatre where Billie is rehearsing in a bid for a 1954 comeback. Thunder, rain, and lightning accompany her into the space, eerily suggesting the emotional tumult to come. In between songs (the score includes "Lady Sings the Blues," "Strange Fruit," "All of Me," and 23 others), Billie loses herself in scenes that recount her broken childhood.

Does Bridgewater (pictured above right) feel Billie's presence at the Little Shubert Theatre, or does the actress not go there?

"Oh, I go there," Bridgewater says. "When I'm getting ready to go on, I say, 'OK, Billie, let's go.' My deal with Billie this time is that she can share my body, not take it over."

In the 1980s, Bridgewater played an earlier version of the show in Paris (in French, no less!) and London. The actress explains, "In London, she kind of took over. Toward the end of my run at the Picadilly, I was getting fan mail addressed to Billie Holiday. People who had seen her or knew her would come backstage and say, 'I did not see you, I saw Billie. That was pretty traumatic. Now I try to leave her at the theatre and join her at the theatre when I go into my dressing room."

Bridgewater's turn is part of her career-long commitment to exploring the heritage of jazz singers. She won a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee, and an earlier Ella Fitzgerald tribute disc was also Grammy-anointed.

Still, Bridgewater admits that when she first heard Holiday's gravelly voice on LPs, many years ago, the sound turned her off. "I thought her voice was small, too nasal," she recalls. "I was of the impression that if you're gonna be a jazz singer you have to know how to scat, and she didn't scat."

But then Bridgewater stumbled across Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. She admits, "I was really struck by her life and…I could identify with a lot of the pain that she had gone through. That's what grabbed me. [When] I was asked to do Lady Day in Paris, I did a lot of investigative work. She's been in me since then, been a part of me."

The late Holiday, who died at age 44, may be inside Bridgewater, but the actress is not seeking to mimic the singer: "I try to incorporate her style in my singing, but I would not dare try to impersonate. In rehearsals, [Stahl] said, 'I want you do an entire rehearsal in her speaking and singing voice,' and I was able to call up a lot of what I was resisting."

Meanwhile, as Bridgewater brings Holiday to life, Lenox, a Tony winner for Doubt, is rousing audiences with two comic and profane solos in After Midnight at the Brooks Atkinson. In some way, she's been prepping for this performance for years, since she listened to jazz and blues greats when she was a kid. (She says that Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and others still stick in her mind.)

In conceiver Jack Viertel's evocation of the Jazz Age/Duke Ellington era of Harlem's Cotton Club, Lenox comes down front to sell the talk-singing "Women Be Wise" and "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night." The former is a Sippie Wallace classic once covered by Bonnie Raitt, and the latter was an Ethel Waters signature. Lenox herself brought "Women Be Wise" to Viertel and After Midnight director-choreographer Warren Carlyle.

While using the internet for research on period songs, Lenox (pictured above left) was introduced to the "beautiful, beautiful spirit" of Ethel Waters, a musical star (Cabin in the Sky, As Thousands Cheer) perhaps best known for the 1950 Broadway play and later film The Member of the Wedding. Lenox says, "I'm a great admirer of hers. When she was coming up during that era, she was called String Bean; and I'm thin, so I'm sort of like a string bean, too."

In addition to drawing on the spirit of Waters, Lenox was mindful of the work of actress-singer Pearl Bailey, the Special Tony Award winner for Hello, Dolly! famous for her sly, conspiratorial talk-singing. "I am somewhere between those two the way I present the songs and talk to the audience," Lenox says. "People have said that I should maybe do a Pearl Bailey cabaret because my sensibility is toward that kind of singing. They're great singers---there's no doubt about it, both of them---but they also have great storytelling skills and they're very funny."

Asked why she likes the stories she's telling in this particular show, she says with a laugh, "I play the Blues Singer, but it's not sad blues like, 'My-poor-man-done-me-wrong' blues. It's funny. I like to do more than just sing. I like to have a little story to tell. I wanna tell the people something---what the truth is!"

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Kenneth Jones, former managing editor of Playbill.com, is a New York City-based theatre writer. He blogs at ByKennethJones.com

Photo of Dee Dee Bridgewater as Billie Holiday by Carol Rosegg