Lady of Jazz – Hope Mill Theatre

Lady of Jazz is an original play that depicts the life of fictional jazz singer, Honey Grey. The narrative is delivered single-handedly by Michaela Bennison, and the performance is punctuated by songs, accompanied by pianist Tony Pegler.

Over nearly two hours, Honey Grey tells her life story; from her humble childhood in Lafeyette, Louisiana, to singing in her father’s band in New Orleans, right through to finding fame in Chicago.

Lady of Jazz Hope Mill Theatre Manchester Theatre Review Michaela Bennison
Honey Grey (Michaela Bennison). Picture Credit – Benjamin Graham.

Remarkably, Lady of Jazz is Michaela Bennison‘s debut leading role. It is surprising because Bennison effortlessly commands the stage. She holds the audience’s attention throughout her narration, building rapport by addressing the audience, and adding an occasional cheeky wink into the mix. Being essentially a one-woman show, there is nowhere for Bennison to hide, but she never appears to be phased by this, and delivers a magnificent starring performance.

Bennison has a rich voice, belting out musical numbers with power and resonance. Even though her microphone wasn’t working in the first half, it didn’t matter because her voice reverberated around the theatre nonetheless. With that much vocal talent, it is evident that Michaela Bennison is a star in the making.

However, the story itself is vast, and focuses on events that happened in Honey Grey’s life, rather than the emotional impact they had on the singer. Spanning critical moments in the 1920s American south, including the prohibition, the Wall Street Crash, and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, it can sometimes feel more like a history lesson than an autobiographical coming-of-age story, because it is not given enough emotional depth.

This means that we never really get to know Honey Grey and she remains an enigma. Perhaps it is intentional, but it stops the audience really connecting with the character because important elements of her past are undeveloped. Her relationship with her white alcoholic mother is rarely touched upon, likewise with her sister. You never get a sense of how difficult it was growing up as a mixed race child in the 1920s deep south. Critically, when Honey Grey encounters a white reporter, there is little dramatic tension and the catastrophic incident seems to be swept under the carpet.

Lady of Jazz Hope Mill Theatre Manchester Theatre Review Michaela Bennison
Honey Grey (Michaela Bennison). Picture Credit – Benjamin Graham.

Although Michaela Bennison is vocally sensational, Greg Mosse‘s static direction leaves the play falling flat. Bennison usually stands in place, or sits at her dressing table whenever she delivers the narration or sings. For the entire second half, Honey is limited to standing at her microphone under a spotlight, and the only movement she makes is to pour a drink from the decanter at the back of the stage. The result is that Lady of Jazz feels dramatically uninspiring.

Similarly, the musical choices seem a little muted. Some are original compositions for this production, others are cover songs. But, they are mainly mellow ballads, accompanied by a pianist. When I think of jazz music, I think of upbeat, exciting music with a full band playing brass instruments, guitars and double bass. Music you can dance to.

Obviously, this show probably doesn’t have the budget to pay for a full band, but the songs lacked energy and excitement, which is no fault of Bennison’s. Only one song, Livin’ It Rich, seems to capture her youthful energy, as she dances the Charleston whilst singing. It is a delightful moment of animated freedom, but sadly a rare one.

As a whole, Lady of Jazz is pleasant enough, with a magnificent performance from Michaela Bennison, but musical and directorial variety is needed to add some more dynamism to the show.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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