Billie Sings the Blues; ‘Bad Jews’ Again: Jeremy Gerard

Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater does a fine impersonation of jazz vocalist Billie Holiday in “Lady Day” at the Little Shubert Theatre in Times Square.

The familiar numbers are here: torchy (“Lover Man,” “Violets for Your Furs”); swinging (“Rhythm is Our Business,” “Swing, Brother, Swing”) and, especially, haunting (“Strange Fruit”).

More important, Bridgewater is backed by a dazzling, keenly attuned jazz quartet comprising the veteran pianist Bill Jolly, Neil Johnson on saxophone, James Cammack on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums.

If only Stephen Stahl’s idiotic script weren’t attached to the proceedings. Like the similarly sordid “End of the Rainbow” about Judy Garland, “Lady Day” uses the pretext of a London concert to show a great star in the throes of a drugs-and-alcohol-induced nervous breakdown.

And so Bridgewater must enact the physical and sexual abuses of the singer’s childhood, her first experience with heroin, etc. I can only imagine it’s as excruciating to perform such necrophiliac acts as it is to watch them. Thrilling as it is, the music in the end neither justifies nor suffices.

At the Little Shubert Theatre, 422 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: *

‘Bad Jews’

The Roundabout has moved “Bad Jews,” its off-Broadway hit of last season, from the tiny Underground space to the Laura Pels Theatre. The larger venue magnifies the fault lines in Joshua Harmon’s squirm-inducing comedy while introducing a talented and provocative new writer to a wider audience.

Slacker Jonah Haber and his confrontational cousin Daphna Feygenbaum have just returned to the Riverside Drive studio apartment his parents have bought him. Daphna is crashing there after the funeral of their beloved grandfather.

Fireworks start almost immediately with the arrival of Jonah’s brother Liam and his Gentile girlfriend Melody, a blank slate, though generous of heart. They were skiing in Aspen and missed the funeral.

Daphna, who got religion on a trip to Israel, lays claim to a chai medallion (chai is the two-letter Hebrew word for “life”) that the grandfather hid in his mouth through the Holocaust. But he bequeathed it to Liam, an atheist who buys Christmas trees.

Intellectual Equals

Their increasingly vicious exchanges will be discomfiting to anyone who has struggled with the issues of religious enfranchisement and assimilation.

Under Daniel Aukin’s direction, these unlikable but challenging characters have expanded into caricatures. The biggest casualty of the change is Tracee Chimo’s Daphna, a Koren cartoon who insults with abandon and harangues with her mouth open and full as she furiously brushes the rat’s nest of hair atop her head.

At the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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