Mary Louise Lee dedicates 'Lady Day' to Jeffrey Nickelson

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Photos from the opening rehearsal of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill starring Mary Louise Lee from Oct. 28-30 in the Jones Theatre. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 2002 production photos provided by Mary Louise Lee. 

Mary Louise Lee, star of the DCPA’s upcoming limited engagement of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at the Jones Theatre, has dedicated the run to late Shadow Theatre Company founder Jeffrey Nickelson.

Nickelson, who died in 2009, was a graduate of the DCPA’s National Theatre Conservatory masters program. He went on to present “stories from the heart of the African-American community,” he liked to say, from 1997-2011. The biggest hit in Shadow’s history was a 2002 production of Lady Day, with Nickelson directing and Lee playing jazz legend Billie Holiday.

This new three-day “workshop production” at the Jones is being directed by Hugo Jon Sayles, who was Nickelson’s longtime Associate Artistic Director at Shadow. If Nickelson was the heart of the Shadow Theatre, then “Hugo Jon Sayles is the soul,” actor Jaime Lujan said when Sayles became Shadow’s Artistic Director in 2010.

Jeffrey loved this show,” Sayles said at Tuesday’s opening rehearsal of Lady Day. “He was just so proud of it. And Mary was wonderful in it. It could have kept running and running. We only stopped because we had another show starting up.”

(Pictured above right, from left: Michael Williams, Mary Louise Lee and Hugo Jon Sayles at Tuesday’s rehearsal. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

Lady Day, written by Lanie Robertson, is a 1986 concert play that recounts Holiday’s troubled life as she performs in a run-down Philadelphia bar just days before her death in 1959. Holiday was known for songs like “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness.” She had a singular singing voice — and a lethal heroin habit. Her powerful yet untrained vocal style pioneered a  new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. One critic equated Holiday’s voice to a broken toy cornet, often slurred by addiction and pain, but one that could convey a range of emotions like few others.

Lady Day. Hugo Jon sayles. Photo by John Moore“When I first heard Billie Holiday sing, I didn’t like her voice,” said Sayles. “But then I met this old jazz player who said, ‘I really dig Billie Holiday, man, because when she sings – it’s like a horn.’ And then I listened to her sing again, and I said, ‘It is a horn!’ From then on, I really understood why jazz musicians loved her.”

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill reintroduces audiences to the jazz of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as to the tragic life of Holiday, who died at age 44. “It’s a tough story,” Sayles said, “but I think it can engage the spirit.” 

There has been a huge resurgence of interest in Lady Day since superstar Audra MacDonald brought it to Broadway for the first time in 2014. But Lee never lost interest.

“For years, every time I saw Mary, she would stop me and say, ‘When are we going to do Lady Day again?’ ” said Sayles. “Just seeing the light in her eyes right now, doing it again, is so fulfilling.”

Check out or Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Lee’s professional career began at the Denver Performing Arts Complex when she joined the cast of Beehive at what is now the Garner-Galleria Theatre. She was just a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School at the time. Through a career that has included performances around the world and singing in front of 75,000, Lee still considers her haunting portrayal of Holiday in 2002 to be her most meaningful performance.

The Musical Director for Lady Day is Sayles’ longtime musical collaborator Michael Williams. Sayles said he once asked Williams’ mother when she knew her son was going to be something in music. She told him: “When he walked up to me as a boy and said, ‘The refrigerator is B-flat,’ ” Sayles said with a laugh.

Remaining tickets are very limited for the three-day run of Lady Day, but Sayles hopes further opportunities will come from that. “I would love for it to have more life after this,” he said.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Lady DayBy Lanie Robertson
Featuring Mary Louise Lee
Directed by Hugo Sayles
Music Direction and Piano by Michael Williams
Oct. 28-30
The Jones Theatre
Tickets start at $25
Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
The show runs approximately 90 minutes without intermission
Adult language and content
Age Recommendation: 17+

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Mary Louise Lee:
Mary Louise Lee returning to Denver Center roots in Lady Day
2015 True West Award: Mary Louise Lee and Yasmine Hunter
Video: Denver First Lady hosts students, Motown the Musical cast members
Mary Louise Lee sings with cast of Million Dollar Quartet
Denver first lady Mary Louise Lee is her own woman
Video podcast: Running Lines with Mary Louise Lee of The Wiz

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