Patti Boulaye performed her show Billie and Me at The Pheasantry, London.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
This is by way of an interim report as during the second half of her show, Billie and Me, Patti Boulaye told us that she had been awake in hospital the previous night with a leg problem, so curtailing her rehearsal time with her band.
She sang for two hours, an extraordinary feat in the circumstances, without omitting a song, and the packed house gave her a standing ovation as she concluded her show with the bouncy ‘Oye Mi Canto’.
Sadly, as the evening progressed, there were false starts and a shuffling of the music which her gallant pianist Alan Rogers coped with with humour and grace. Her two gowns, one in black, the other in white, dazzled the eye.
Billie and Me is a well-intentioned tribute to the legendary Billie Holiday with whom the Nigerian-born Patti Boulaye had good reason to identify, not least as a witness to the civil war in her home country known as the Biafran war.
Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, a song written by Abel Meeropol, carried an extra frisson last night with the muted trumpet of Martin Shaw adding his own distinctive colour to the grim picture of a lynching in a southern state. Boulaye’s expressive delivery would have benefited from a less full-on sound balance in this spot and in other more reflective songs too.
It was a tricky feat to identify the narration relating to Holiday’s life and that of Boulaye’s own career. Holiday left an extensive discography, so there were plenty of songs to draw on including recordings with Basie, Goodman and Shaw.
Boulaye was intrigued by Holiday’s strange taste in men, picking up on her penchant for allowing them to cheat on her as illustrated by the rhyme and title: “I’m glad/You’re bad/Don’t explain”.
She touched on Holiday’s drug problems, ruefully noting that they don’t just hurt the people taking them, but their loved ones too. Her mention of the recent spate of deaths in the pop world struck me as unnecessary in this context; the concluding ‘My Way’, included as a nod to Sinatra who cited Holiday as a major influence on his career, came across as spurious, despite the excellent delivery.
‘At Last’ was another non-Holiday song enlivened by a 1950s rock‘n’roll piano accompaniment, and Alberta Hunter’s good-humoured ‘Two Fisted Double Jointed Rough and Ready Man’, was timed to a tee by Boulaye. It was a welcome touch to hear the long verse to ‘My Man’ (omitted by Streisand in the film Funny Girl).
In ‘God Bless The Child’ Boulaye drew a parallel between their two God-fearing but kind-hearted mothers, who she remembered in gratitude in ‘In My Memory’.
Of her own stage career, Boulaye recalled ‘Dat’s Love’, prowling round the audience as the ultimate femme fatale Carmen in Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, a role she played for more than four years. With some trimming and a sharper focus on the narrative, this show could take off. I wish it well.