The reason The Late Great Ladies is being staged as theater probably has to do with the success of Ain't Misbehavin', One Mo' Time, Sophisticated Ladies and Dreamgirls - nostalgia shows for blacks proud of their musical heritage but not too knowledgeable about specifics, and whites enamored of black music but alienated from contemporary forms. Like those shows, The Late Great Ladies delivers rollicking entertainment and, for the most part, gets its facts straight. But it falsifies history though vocal inaccuracies.
Although the women impersonated by Reaves-Phillips shared certain tonal characteristics, they could hardly be mistaken for one another. Yet if not for her changes of costume, it would be tough to distinguish Reaves-Phillips ' Ma Rainey from her Billie Holiday (and tough to distinguish either from her Mahalia Jackson). They might as well all be Della Reese, the belter Reaves- Phillips most resembles with her unsettling mix of blues phrasing and Vegas affectation.
Because Reaves-Phillips' aim is so wide, she fares best with Smith and Rainey, pre-amplification shouters who legend has already reduced to caricature, and who therefore present the widest targets. Although her voice grates in a way that their recorded voices never did, Reaves-Phillips succeeds in conveying a sense of what it must have been like to behold these larger- than-life figures.
Reaves-Phillips is a big woman, just like most of her subjects, and she does a good job in suggesting the different ways in which her stars carried their weight. For example, photographs of Holiday suggest that she thought of herself as frail and vulnerable despite her girth; and Reaves-Phillips portrays her that way. But the voice she gives Holiday is all wrong, with too much melisma and not enough lilt (and when did Holiday ever scat the way Reaves-Phillips does at the end of "God Bless the Child"?).
Between songs, Reaves-Phillips remains in character to address her audience. In most cases, this is a nice touch. But her monologues for Holiday and Waters - in part drawn from their autobiographies - play on easy pathos to the point of becoming dangerously out of character, since neither of these tragic women was in the habit of sharing with audiences the sort of bitter recollections they set down on paper.
The musicianship of Reaves-Phillips' five-piece backup band, led by pianist George Butcher, was obvious. However their harmonic sophistication frequently
put them at odds with the vintage material that they were being asked to re- create.
The irony of The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz is that Reaves- Phillips is attempting to copy singers who preached the gospel of individuality, the cardinal rule that jazz and blues performers used to pass
from one generation to the next. What Reaves-Phillips is doing isn't singing or acting - it's impersonation, one step above Puttin' on the Hits.