Lady Sings the Blues – Mama Alto Sings Billie Holiday (Mama Alto)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio
November 22 – 24
My first Mama Alto experience at last year’s Wonderland Festival was my absolute favourite theatre show of 2018. And it is only minutes into this year’s “Lady Sings the Blues” return, before I am reminded as to why. In fact, from the moment the gender transcendent diva and jazz singer statuesquely slides on to the stage, hair appropriately gathered up with gardenias, to divinely open with the titular song, there is an immediate appeal to the intimate (despite it being full house) cabaret show.
There is a natural attraction also to the work’s premise. As Mama Alto comments, it is Billie Holiday’s name on the program that would have brought audience members out on a Thursday night, such is the enduring fascination with the American jazz legend. For those who have seen Mama Alto, before, however, this is not necessarily the case as one experience of her exceptional talent and you are sure to be a return-again fan.
Just like Holiday herself, Mama Alto’s interpretations of the evening’s songs show a balance of joy and sorrow. The unscripted mosaic of Holiday stories that join them represents s similar mix of naughtiness and pathos. And they are wonderfully told too, helping to paint a picture of the iconic songstresses’ complexity and charm, inset also with a healthy dose of humble egotism as every diva show should possess. So engrossing is the whole experience that the evening is over too soon. The one-hour standard festival show length, so often an attractive attribute in allowing multiple experiences, this time, seems inadequate for collectively-captivated audience wanting more.
With only half a dozen or so songs, “Lady Sings the Blues” is far from a full Billie Holliday biography, but each one is still exquisite in tell of the tragedies and triumphs of the life and music of Lady Day. Not only is Mamma Alto’s voice distinctive and arresting in its ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ hauntingly long lingers, but her interpretive skill makes for an all-around enchanting experience. Indeed, she is intuitive in delivery of both lyric and melody and also astounding in phrasing and emotion, with vocals that are at once delicate and powerful, and always evocative, whether in the stunning seduction of ‘The Blues Are Brewin’’ or the aching desolation of infidelity suspicion in ‘You’ve Changed’.
Collaborator, Musical Director and pianist extraordinaire Miss Chief’s accompaniment is on-point too, showcased throughout to often mid-show applause. Having worked together for many years, the duo has a natural on-stage rapport that enable the show’s fluid approach, including, in this instance, the duo each improvising a mid-song brass solo.
Mama Alto adores Billie Holiday; this is clear. The other thing evident is that audiences love Mama Alto in both her storytelling and especially her songs. With perfect feeling, timing and vocals, she creates a personal, intimate and emotional cabaret experience of luxurious easy-listening to which you could easily return over again.