'The very first' returns to Barrington Stage
Twenty five years ago, actress and singer Gail Nelson was the first person to perform at a brand new theater company called Barrington Stage Company with "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," a solo musical play about Billie Holiday's final days.
On Saturday and Monday, Nelson returns to Barrington Stage with a musical homage to Holiday, accompanied by Howard Begun on piano and Will Hack on bass.
This appearance marks Nelson's debut at Mr. Finn's Cabaret, an intimate performance space below Barrington's second stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center.
Nelson's extensive set list of "up-tunes and ballads" will include "All of Me," "Them There Eyes," "Good Morning Heartache" and "Moonlight," plus Holiday's signature song "Strange Fruit," about lynchings in the South, and some Bessie Smith songs.
"'Lover Man' is another favorite of mine," Nelson said by phone from her New Jersey home. "It's haunting, you really get into her spirit and her phrasing."
"Lady Day" cast albums starring Nelson will also be available to purchase.
"I can't believe it's been 25 years since we opened the theater company with 'Lady Day,'" Nelson said. "It boggles my mind.
"It's my first time in the cabaret room," she said. "It's going to be fun singing some of these songs I was singing for so long in a different context."
More of an Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan fan, Nelson initially wasn't really excited about performing Holiday's music.
"I started delving and listening, and all of a sudden it infiltrated into my soul," she said. "The songs and the way she sang made me feel the lyrics and the phrasing; it's like she lived through each word."
Nelson returned four times to Barrington Stage as Lady Day. She also appeared in other BSC shows, including "South Pacific."
During her varied career, Nelson has sung opera — she attended New England Conservatory of Music — and performed on Broadway; in New York and regional theater; cabaret on land and sea from the Caribbean to Africa; plus TV commercials and two decades of book narration.
She toured the U.S. in "Porgy and Bess" with Houston Grand Opera, performed with Ginger Rogers at Radio City Music Hall, and sang with Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey in "Hello Dolly."
In 1987, she married her longtime musical director and arranger Danny Holgate — they met in 1976. "Cab [Calloway] gave us our wedding at his White Plains home," she recalled.
This visit to the Berkshires is her first performance at BSC since her beloved partner of 40 years passed away in 2017. "We were a great team," Nelson said. "He's always with us; he'll be in the house."
"I've known Gail for a long long time," said Barrington Stage Artistic Director Julianne Boyd. "Her husband Danny was musical director for [Boyd's production] 'Eubie!' on Broadway in 1978." He also played Holiday's accompanist Jimmy Powers in "Lady Day."
It was Holgate who suggested Boyd consider the Hartford TheaterWorks production of "Lady Day" to open her new company.
"I saw a video and thought it was magnificent," she said.
Following that first staging at The Macano Inn in Housatonic, Barrington Stage reprised the show by popular demand four more times at different locations, most recently in 2007 on the Mainstage.
"It's as if it hasn't left us, it's been with us for many years," Boyd said. "It's so exciting to have [Nelson] back because it's such a great memory of being successful."
She recalls Nelson giving an acclaimed performance as the lead in "Porgy and Bess."
"I knew her as an overall fabulous musician. Her voice was soprano and bluesy, it could be anything," Boyd said. "She always surprises you, her musicianship is so deep."
She considers Nelson part of BSC's artistic family. "She was the very first," Boyd said.
Nelson kicks off the summer season at Mr. Finn's Cabaret. Performances are already underway at the St. Germain Stage, with Mainstage productions set to begin June 19.
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