JEZEBEL OF JAZZ: Songs and Stories with Anita O’Day

BATS Theatre (Out-Of-Site) Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington

22/02/2014 - 26/02/2014

Old St John's, Nelson

27/07/2014 - 27/07/2014

NZ Fringe Festival 2014

Nelson Winter Festival 2014

Production Details

She Was Known as the ‘Keith Richards’ of Jazz Music. So Why Have You Never Heard of Anita O’Day? 

At her peak, she was regularly mentioned in the same breath as jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington.  But fame requires both talent and luck, and luck never quite seemed to find Anita O’Day, so today this legend of jazz has been largely forgotten.  A cabaret piece debuting at the 2014 Fringe Festival is hoping to change that. 

Actress Liz Kirkman learned about O’Day from friend and fellow performer David Goldthorpe. “He was developing a show on Chet Baker and I was envious of having a vehicle that could marry both my acting and my singing skills.” Goldthorpe suggested she look at O’Day. Kirkman did, and recognized a kindred spirit to whom she could relate.  She immediately asked a writer friend, Kelli Greene Caldwell, to get started on a script.  

The result, titled, “The Jezebel of Jazz: Songs and Stories with Anita O’Day”, directed by Jacqueline Coats, contains scenes from O’Day’s life interspersed with performances of her most famous and moving songs. From start to finish, it is largely a solo performance by Kirkman.

Earlier this year, Kirkman performed a shortened version of the play that confirmed she’d made the right choice in choosing O’Day as a subject.  “I see a lot of similarities between us.  Not wanting to conform to a ‘typical’ kind of life, a strong, stylistic voice that is not ‘pretty,’ and we both have big bucked front teeth! In terms of career, Anita always seemed to be missing the bus – solidly working, but not respected in the same way as her contemporaries.” Kirkman muses, “Of course, she had amazing successes and is highly respected amongst jazz musos, but the general populace never took her up in the same way as other singers.” 

O’Day’s life was so filled with drama, it’s surprising we’ve heard so little about her.  Kirkman laughs, “The drugs, the jail time, the mix of men, the career spanning 8 decades!  Seriously, who does that?! What’s not to be interested in?  She’s amazing.” 

She hopes the performances will give audiences a chance to get up close and personal with one of jazz music’s hidden talents. “Anita was a powerful storyteller.  But if you ever see the documentary made on her, ‘Anita O’Day – Life of a Jazz Singer’ you can see the moment where her story ends and then there’s a vulnerability, a weight, a truth that I don’t think she spent much of her life sharing.  I want to be able to share that character, the ‘spinner’ that she was, but also moments of that vulnerability behind the facade.  And of course, her amazing arrangements, the way she played with timing and her sense of ease and truth when singing.  I can’t wait to share that.” 


2014 New Zealand Fringe Festival 
Bats Theatre 
22nd – 26th of February 8pm | Sunday Matinee 2pm 
Full $18 I Concession/ Group $14 

2014 Nelson Winter Festival
Sunday 27th of July 2014

Jazz jezebel brought to life

Review by Gail Tresidder 30th Jul 2014

Like so many of her jazz world contemporaries, Anita O’Day lived a big-dipper life of horrendous lows and too many highs. Unusually, she beat her demons and sang on, eventually dying in her late eighties.

As O’Day, Liz Kirkman looks the part, her accent is precise and consistent and her stories about the singer’s complicated life are well-delivered. It is the little unexpected things that are especially touching. [More]


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Much more than our money’s worth

Review by Ruth Allison 28th Jul 2014

Anita O’Day would see sweet irony in performing in a Methodist Church, unconsecrated as it is. If Liz Kirkman is to be believed, Anita was often seeking wisdom from Jesus. It’s not much fun for the audience in the back pews however. The sightlines mean that Kirkman appears to float bodyless and the backing band recedes into a dim interior. It doesn’t help that there seems to be a leaking canister of dry ice somewhere shrouding the singer in sporadic clouds of mist. My other complaint is the sound system which is at times piercingly loud, distorting the words and sometimes the melody of a singer who undoubtedly deserves better.   

Liz Kirkman brings American Jazz singer of the ’50s Anita O’Day to life with a full repertoire of fifteen songs and a narrative told through an imagined conversation mainly with her mother. The spirit and vulnerability of O’Day is captured in the constant battle O’Day had with her mother and the father she never really knew but mostly with her producers over her wish to sing her own way. She may have been known as the Jezebel of Jazz but she was also the queen of improvisation. 

In an intense two hours Kirkman’s frenetic dialogue introduces us to her many male admirers: “I’ve met someone,” a constantly recurring phrase, she talks of her two failed marriages, trips on marihuana, overdoses on heroin; she berates her mother for dying while O’Day was in prison: “Why then?” In doing so she shows us that music is the only constant factor in her life. 

Kirkman’s slick changes of dress and props onstage kept up the momentum; her ‘anxiety attacks’ are believable and moving, her gradual addiction to drugs is convincing. She wasn’t known as the Zombie Queen for nothing. 

All of this woven by a performance of considerable vocal agility. The iconic ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, sung at the Newport Festival while under the influence of heroin, is performed with the bravura of a totally cool swinging chick; the raucous ‘Let Me Off Uptown’ barely recognizable; ‘I Can’t Get started with You’ and ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ silky and smooth; ‘Tea for Two’ ridiculously fast. Kirkman doesn’t have quite the huskiness of O’Day but she has clearly studied the goddess of jazz and she gives us much more than our money’s worth. 

Kirkman is ably supported by Anita Schwabe on keyboard, Janelle Salisbury playing double bass and Lauren Ellis on percussion. If only I’d been sitting on a table close to the action and Kirkman had a better adjusted microphone, the cabaret atmosphere would have made this a great night. It wasn’t her fault but I envied those guys in the front row. The world would indeed have been my oyster.


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Kirkman is mesmerising

Review by Michael Wray 25th Feb 2014

We start with Anita lying on the bathroom floor perilously close to a heroin overdose, balanced between life and death. Anita’s life is flashing before her and through this we are taken on a tour of the highs and lows of her career and personal life, with particular attention given to mother. 

From childhood, and the girl who wants to sing and entertain the world, to the woman with “million dollar talent but no class” we come to the ‘present day’, 1968, and discover the dangers of not having someone on hand to help you shoot-up.

The show combines live music with theatrical scenes, the latter mostly introduced by voiceover. Some of the voiceover cues are a little slow in coming; many are simple chapter headings, perhaps better suited to AV projection that could help the work flow more smoothly between scenes. 

The live music features Liz Kirkman accompanied by a three piece band: Anita Schwabe on keyboard, Janelle Salisbury playing double bass and Lauren Ellis providing percussion. There are times when the balance between the microphone volume and music seems a little off, with the vocals turned up a little high, more noticeably on the up-tempo songs.  

Wellington audiences should already be aware of Kirkman’s acting talents, which she brings to the work as Anita in each scene. Her talents are wider than just acting; when she sings, particularly on the slower numbers, Kirkman is mesmerising. The performance of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, where the first half of the song is simply voice accompanied by subtle percussion, is especially hypnotic.  

The bathroom set is effectively represented by a black and white bathroom tiling mat, starkly picked up by spotlight and complemented with drug paraphernalia. In attention to detail, track-marks line the left arm of Anita. Pictures on-line of Anita O’Day performing at the Newport Festival in black dress, white gloves and a white-feathered black hat reveal the show has successfully striven for authenticity in costume too.  

What happens after 1968 is presented in an epilogue scene, which seems to arrive suddenly. No doubt this is a necessity of the one hour format used by Bats and the Fringe shows it hosts. Ideally, I’d like to see this work expanded into a fuller length and given a more traditional cabaret setting to embrace the world it presents. It deserves a larger chunk of your evening. 


Liz Kirkman February 25th, 2014

Thanks Michael.  Kelli, Jacqui and I have worked very hard to try and fit it within a 60 minute frame, but we will be very keen to give it some breathing room (and another beat) before it raises it's head again at the National Jazz Festival in Tauranga on Easter Saturday, 19th April at the Baycourt Theatre, where it will be a 90 minute show with interval.

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