By Lynn Venhaus

When the Academy Award nominations are announced on March 15, I will wager that Andra Day will be among the five names listed for Best Actress. She is ferocious in her portrayal of the troubled, self-destructive and talented vocalist – and even more remarkable, it is her first major acting role.

Day, a Grammy-nominated R&B singer, summons raw emotion when depicting Holiday’s sad, sordid life. When she is on stage, singing Holiday’s classics, she is incandescent.

Costume designer Paulo Nieddu, known for “Sex and the City” and “Empire,” provides an elegant and opulent look for the entertainer, while the hair and makeup department’s work is award-worthy.

Starting in 1947, iconic jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) was targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics for not only her heroin use, but also for singing the praised yet controversial “Strange Fruit,” which is about a lynching. An undercover sting operation is led by black federal agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), with whom she had a tumultuous affair.

Unfortunately, Day is far better than the film’s material. While focusing on the last 10 years of Holiday’s life, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks cram too much into the narrative and allow characters to come and go with little context.

It’s frustrating to watch because of the inconsistencies, and the rest of the characters are caricatures.

Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, adapted the screenplay from Johann Mari’s book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” specifically the chapter “The Black Hand.”

The bold “Strange Fruit” helped Holiday gain prominence, but the ballad was a lightning rod for controversy and her defiance was a source of aggravation for the feds.

 In 1999, Time magazine called it “The Song of the Century” and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. The song is credited as a catalyst in the civil rights movement.

But back in her day, Lady Day suffered for her art.

Garrett Hedlund, who desperately needs a hit after a string of duds since his breakout role in the 2004 film “Friday Night Lights,” plays the antagonistic bigoted bully Harry Anslinger, head of the bureau, almost as if he’s Snidely Whiplash.

Natasha Lyonne plays actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was rumored to have a relationship with Holiday, but it’s a useless part of the narrative, and just dropped in with little context.

Faring better is Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher, a complex agent who falls in love with Holiday. Their relationship is confounding, mainly because of Holiday’s other husbands and lovers – and hard to keep who’s who straight because of the jumps back and forth. Rhodes, who played the grown-up Chiron in “Moonlight,” does what he can with playing a real, conflicted character.

Holiday’s personal life was messy, and the movie shows how drug use, excessive drinking, non-stop smoking and abuse by awful men lead to her decline. It’s a tragic tale, to be sure, but the graphic shots of injecting heroin and the physical assaults are tough to watch.

However, as the third film this past year showing how evil J. Edgar Hoover’s moves as the director of the FBI were, it is always worth remembering his abuses of power. (The other two films: “MLK/FBI” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”).

While Day shines a light on this legend, the film ultimately disappoints. Holiday, and Day, deserved better.

Andra Day stars in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Takashi Seida.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is a biographical drama, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund,. It is rated R for drug use, domestic violence, language, nudity and mature themes and the run time is 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Lynn’s Grade: B. Now available streaming on Hulu.

By Lynn Venhaus

Wow. Just a WOW.
Dynamic Debby Lennon has a beautifully trained voice that is spellbinding, and even better on stage when she is playing a character. She is a terrific storyteller, which is why she’s often the centerpiece in recent revelatory shows by Max and Louie Productions.

“Songs for Nobodies” showcases both those talents in a warm, endearing way. On a simple set, wearing a nondescript black dress, Lennon vividly creates a genuine connection between the audience and the stars.

Lennon smoothly guides us through homages of divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. This is no small feat, given the challenges of their distinctive personas but also the differences in dialects and genres – standards, country, blues, torch ballads and opera.

Lennon delivers each number with customary skill, from Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen classic that was part of her Carnegie Hall concert in 1961, to Callas’ signature aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca” – her 1953 recording is considered the best.

Photo by John Lamb

These are not imitations, but rather representations. As Lennon sings these memorable selections of the 20th century in a revealing and heartfelt way, we are transported to other times and places, as this play offers intimate glimpses into ordinary lives with extraordinary results.

Kevin Bowman’s projection design creates a visual frame of reference for each interaction – the famous singer, who after all is human, and the regular people who are their fans. Touched by the music, those fans make a connection that matters in their lives.

Lennon sets each vignette by smartly defining each fictional everyday woman character with humor and instantly likable traits. And why not? They have unexpected life-changing encounters with musical icons of the 20th century, much to their surprise and joy.

These females are the “Nobodies” in the title, but that’s facetious because they are significant human beings. And Lennon brings out the fun in those personalities.

Lennon has sung with the St. Louis Symphony for 33 years and has performed with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Union Avenue Opera and Winter Opera in St. Louis, in addition to the Muny and other professional regional theater companies.

Debby Lennon sings Edith Piaf, Photo by John Lamb.

For her unforgettable performances in Max and Louie’s “Grey Gardens” and “Souvenir,” she won two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. Last year, she appeared in the one-woman show “Love, Linda, The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter.”

Perhaps the most emotional segment is Billie Holiday’s, given her troubles with addiction and the segregated time she lived in, and her bold song “Strange Fruit” is an example of her courage. And “Lady Sings the Blues” was part of her portfolio too.

And French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s rousing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I Don’t Regret Anything) is one of the most familiar songs, and Lennon matches its fervor. She also delivers a robust “L’Accordeoniste.”

Music Director Nicolas Valdez, who also plays piano, superbly conducts the one-woman show. He is joined by Jake Stergos on bass and Keith Bowman on percussion. They are behind a black scrim that is strikingly lit by lighting designer Tony Anselmo, a nice touch.

With wit and charm, Australian playwright Joanna Murray Smith has imagined these memorable women in intriguing scenarios. Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who is stationed in a powder room in a New York hotel; Pearl Avalon, a proud back-up singer; and fashion writer Too Junior Jones thrilled to interview Billie Holliday take place in the U.S. Edie Delamotte, whose section takes historical liberties when talking about Piaf; and Orla McDonough with prima donna Maria Callas.

The most moving is Edie Delamotte’s recollection of her French father’s hardships during World War II.

The play is captivating in the way it presents the personalities, this timeless music and why we care about our relationships with artists.

Director Pamela Hunt also noted the women lived at a time where many a man controlled their lives. This is indeed an interesting aspect.

These gifted singers are bright-light individuals who allowed their brilliance to shine, which is still felt today, and their stories go beyond entertainment.

In their mission statement, Max and Louie refers to “bringing artists and audiences together in a shared experience that illuminates life through joy, wonder, laughter and tears.” Mission accomplished with “Songs for Nobodies.” You could feel the audience’s happiness. That’s a good way to start Max and Louie’s 11th season.

Max and Louie Productions presents “Songs for Nobodies” Jan. 23 – Feb. 2 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. 501 N. Grand. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. A special 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Feb. 1, has been added. For more information, visit www.maxandlouie.com

Debby Lennon. Photo by John Lamb