• Vintage, Denver Center collaborate to bring 'Lady Day,' Mary Louise Lee, to stage

    by John Moore | Nov 20, 2017
    Lady Day Mary Louise Lee Adams Viscom Mary Louise Lee in the 2016 DCPA Theatre Company workshop of 'Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.' Photo by  AdamsVisCom.

     

    From First Lady to Lady Day: Billie Holiday musical to open at Vintage, then move to Denver Center's Galleria Theatre

    By John Moore
    Senior Arts Journalist

    Mary Louise LeeWhen Mary Louise Lee revisited her signature role as Billie Holiday
    in a special workshop production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill last year, she dedicated the performance to Shadow Theatre Company founding Artistic Director Jeffrey Nickelson. Lee considers having played the jazz legend in 2002 to be the most meaningful performance of her storied career.

    It couldn't be more fitting, then, that when Vintage Theatre Productions brings the story to full stage life again this January with Lee in the title role, she will be be performing in the Jeffrey Nickelson Auditorium. 

    Nickelson, who died in 2009, was a graduate of the DCPA’s National Theatre Conservatory masters program. In 1997, he founded Shadow Theatre to present “stories from the heart of the African-American community,” as he liked to say. And the biggest hit in Shadow’s history was that 2002 production of Lady Day, with Nickelson directing and Lee starring as Holiday.

    Lady DayFor her haunting portrayal of a woman with a singular singing voice — and a lethal heroin habit  — Lee won a Westword Best of Denver Award for Best Actress in a Musical. The review said: “A stunning evening of theatre. Lee's singing is absolutely radiant. Her voice is smooth as glass. At times she sounds uncannily like Holiday, at others entirely like her full-throated self." She reprised the role for a special three-day workshop engagement in 2016 at the Denver Center's Jones Theatre. 

    After Nickelsen died of a heart attack in 2009, the theatre he opened at 1468 Dayton St. in Aurora was renamed the Jeffrey Nickelson Auditorium. Vintage took over operations there in 2011. 

    Berry HartToday, Vintage and the Denver Center announced an unprecedented collaboration. Vintage will introduce its new production of Lanie Robertson's Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, starring Lee and directed by Betty Hart (pictured right), from Jan. 12 through Feb. 18. The production will then move to the Denver Center's Garner-Galleria Theatre on March 5 and perform there on Monday nights through April 23 — while the Denver Center's ongoing musical comedy First Date continues its run for the rest of the week.

    Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill tells Holiday's troubled life story through the songs that made her famous, including "God Bless the Child," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Strange Fruit" and "Taint Nobody's Biz-ness." Set in Philadelphia in 1959, Holiday's performance at Emerson's Bar & Grill was one of her last, and Lady Day is not just a memorable tribute to the singer, but also a moving portrait of her struggles with addiction, racism, and loss.

    "We're thrilled, of course," said Vintage Theatre Artistic Director Bernie Cardell. "This is an exciting event for Vintage and for the theatre community overall. If we are to thrive, collaboration is the key. While we certainly can survive on our own, we can reach bigger heights together. My hope is this is just the start of a new way of producing quality theatre for our community."

     Lady Day Mary Louise Lee. 2002Lee's performing career began at the Denver Center when she appeared in Beehive at what is now the Garner Galleria Theatre while only 18 years old and still a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School. In 2011, Lady Day also became the First Lady of Denver when her husband, Michael B. Hancock, was elected Mayor.

    (Pictured right: Mary Louise Lee in rehearsal for her award-winning turn in 'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill' for Shadow Theatre in 2002.)

    Lee has performing at many high profile events over the past two decades, including the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions. She performed with the Colorado Symphony at the 911 Remembrance Ceremony, and in the First Ladies of Jazz concert. She has sung the national anthem before 78,000 Denver Broncos fans, was featured vocalist at the grand opening of Union Station was a Season 9 contestant on America's Got Talent.  She has toured internationally performing for the troops of the U.S. Department of Defense. She returned to the DCPA in 2014 to sing with the cast of the national touring production of the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet onstage at the Buell Theatre. And last December, Lee won a 2015 True West Award for her performance in the new musical, Uncle Jed's Barbershop.  

    Read John Moore's Denver Post profile of Mary Louise Lee

    Mary Louise Lee The Wiz. AfterthoughtSome of Lee's other notable local theatre performances have included Vogue Theatre’s A Brief History of White Music, the Arvada Center’s The 1940s Radio Hour, Country Dinner Playhouse’s Ain’t Misbehavin', Denver Civic’s Menopause the Musical and Afterthought Theatre Company's The Wiz, as Glinda the Good Witch (pictured right). She took on that role just after Hancock was elected in 2011.

    From students to senior citizens, Lee is committed to being an ambassador for the arts to help expose and expand access to Denver’s vibrant arts and cultural communities. She is choir director at the New Hope Baptist Church and founder of “Bringin’ Back the Arts," a foundation that encourages arts education in the public schools.

    Betty Hart, the director, recently moved to Denver from Atlanta, where she was a Teaching Artist at the Alliance Theatre. She is the Special Projects Coordinator for Kaiser Permanente Arts Integrated Resources program and recently joined the board of directors for the Colorado Theatre Guild.

    The Music Director will be Trent Hines. He was most recently the conductor and pianist for The Wild Party at the Stanley Marketplace, and he also performed in the show.


    A Lady Day Westword

    Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill: At Vintage Theatre

  • Jan. 12-Feb 18, 2018 (Note: The Feb. 3 show will be performed by Shandra Duncan)
  • 1468 Dayton St., Aurora
  • Tickets $15-$34
  • Call 303-856-7830 or BUY ONLINE


  • Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill: At the Garner-Galleria Theatre

  • March 5-April 23, 2018
  • Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Tickets start at $42
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • The show runs approximately 90 minutes without intermission
  • Adult language and content
  • Age Recommendation: 17 and over
  •  

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Video: Mary Louise Lee sings with Million Dollar Quartet:

    Video: Watch Mary Louise Lee sing 'Fools Fall in Love' with the cast of  the national touring production of 'Million Dollar Quartet' at the Buell Theatre in 2014.

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ABOUT THE EDITOR
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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