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Yesterday's the Way for Holiday

Yesterdays Directed by Craig Cochrane At North House Through April 14

By Alexander E. Marashian

Yesterdays: the life and music of Billie Holiday is, to my knowledge, an unprecedented Harvard production. It is not, strictly speaking, a play, a musical nor a concert. Instead, Yesterdays is about the possibilities of jazz. The juxtaposition of jazz numbers and dramatic monologues results in a fresh interpretation of Holiday's life that manages both to entertain and to challenge the boundaries of theater at Harvard.

Though it takes for its subject one of jazz's great tragic figures, Yesterdays is not concerned with scaling the heights of Holiday's mythic stature, nor with undoing it. Rather, it engages its audience in discovering Holliday's life through her own music and that of others. Like a great jazz composition, Yesterdays hovers about its theme without suffocating it, evades static and predetermined theatrical structures, defies classification and resists resolution.

Director Craig Cochrane sets Yesterdays in an elegant, dimly lit nightclub--round tables with gardenia centerpieces surround a low stage flanked by a piano trio. The audience is seated on the 'set,' establishing the intimacy of an actual jazz performance. During the production, beverages and pretzels can be ordered, and chatting is (or seems to be) acceptable--the distinction between theater and cabaret is undermined.

The show begins with a demanding but well-executed a capella rendition of "Yesterdays," performed by Charlie Cardillo and Paitra Russell. Cardillo and Russell are not personalities in the Holiday story--they are Harvard students. And it is unclear at first how the audience is to understand their presence. The program reads "Act I," which prepares us for theater. But this feels like a jazz show.

The piano trio kicks in at the end of the first number and accompanies the rest of the show. Craig Hickman performs an animated "Embraceable You"--one of Holiday's most famous numbers--and then introduces Holiday herself, who is played by Ketanji Brown. The transition from student jazz concert to drama is innovative, but awkward. Brown, who affects Holiday's dialect in both her monologue and musical performance, is the only member of the cast/company to represent a historical character.

Following an impressive version of "Ain't Nobody's Business," Holiday launches into a fragmented account of her personal development, beginning with an unhappy childhood and touching on her experiences as a prostitute and in prison. These narrative snippets--excerpts from Holiday's autobiography adapted by Brown for this production--provide valuable insight into the emotional life behind Holiday's compositions and are well-integrated into the musical program.

After recounting these episodes, Holiday belts out an impassioned "God Bless the Child" and exits. Suddenly, Yesterdays is a concert again. Highlights from this section are Russell's powerful, understated "These Foolish Things," and a lively, virtuoso interpretation of "That's All" from Hickman.

Holiday returns to relate the tragic story behind her composition "Strange Fruit," but she cannot bear to perform it. Cochrane provides one of the most moving moments of the evening when he unexpectedly performs the work in Holiday's place, further undoing distinctions between performance and production, drama and musical concert. Cochrane's solemn sound, raspy and bellowing, is ideally suited to the mournful tune.

Throughout the production, admirable renditions of Holiday's most memorable works are interspersed with timely appearances by Holiday's character. The piano trio that accompanies the show, from the Berklee School of Music, is tight, driving and colorful (though naturally they do not capture the sound of Holiday's big bands).

When the show closes with a poignant "Sophisticated Lady" from Hickman, one is left with a deeper appreciation for Holiday, whose life and music appear inextricable. And yet, what we have experienced are crazy insights into a complex life--impressionistic, like a great work of jazz. That so much can have been expressed through so diffuse a medium is one of Yesterday's significant achievements.

Yesterdays is impressionistic, like a great work of jazz.

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