Reviewed by Zuzi Fort
What is there say about the show? Tour de force comes to mind, as does triumph, masterpiece, once-in-a-lifetime experience, pièce de resistance of Australian theatre.
Somehow, none seem remotely adequate in describing this jewel of creativity.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar; Grill by Lanie Robertson with musical Arrangements by Danny Holgate is the magnum opus of live theatre worldwide. It does not have the large cast one associates with hit production, nor does it have transforming sets, elaborate costumes,
special effects, smoke, and a large orchestra. Yet, it more than holds its own. This intimate production grabs you from the moment you enter the auditorium and grasps you in a tight hug, not letting go well past the time the lights go down. I am still reeling and still feeling those goosebumps whenever I ponder the power and magic of Lady Day. What a roller-coaster it had been. Describing the life of Billie Holliday, the show took me on a crazy ride through her ups and downs, getting almost a first-hand glimpse of the agony and ecstasy of her life.
The set is superb and spills into the auditorium. The smoky atmosphere is complimented by ageing lampshades hanging from the rafters. A small, cosy corner stage is home to a piano, double bass, and a set of drums as a lone microphone holds centre stage.
The anticipation is palpable as you enter Belvoir’s unique upstairs space. You are transported to the laid-back atmosphere of the 1900s. You find yourself in a cabaret bar as a jazz trio entertains you with their witty musical frolicking. Usherettes respectfully guide you to your seats, and for those lucky few, a maître de seats them at tables, becoming an integral part of the show, namely the patrons of Emerson’s Bar & Grill and a captive audience for what turns out to be one of the last shows of Billie Holiday.
It is March 1959, around midnight. Billie Holiday is about to step on the stage in a small, run-down bar in South Philadelphia. Finally, the doors close, and the furore dies down. Lady Day, masterfully and flawlessly embodied by Zahra Newman, makes an entrance. Gliding in wearing an enchanting gown is Lady Day, the legend. Newman’s stage presence and charisma hold you captive as she belts out many of Billie Holiday’s most iconic songs,
including ‘God Bless the Child’, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, ‘Somebody’s on My Mind’ and ‘Strange Fruit’. Battling addiction and ill health, we witness one of Billie's final shows before her death in July 1959. Between songs, Holiday candidly recounts illuminating, at times tragic and at times humorous, anecdotes about her life. Not one to mince words, she candidly voices her ache, anger, joy, and passion. As the show progresses, Billie becomes progressively more intoxicated and incoherent, yet somehow more raw, human, and appealing.
Under the masterful direction of Mitchell Butel Zahra Newman, along with Kym Purling on piano as Jimmy Powers, Victor Rounds on double bass and Calvin Welch on drums, they all create an electrifying night in the life of an extraordinary woman.
Mere words are too inadequate - much too much set in the complex realities of this world – to define the show. What you experience goes far beyond that which is definite, beyond tangible, it is ethereal, it is otherworldly. The voice, that voice, Newman’s voice, takes hold of you and doesn’t let go. It cuts right through and clutches your heart. Even in the darkest moments, we can witness Billie’s unquenchable thirst for life.
Zahra Newman's performance is an extraordinary showcase of acting and vocal mastery.
She is Billie Holiday. Through Zahra, we witness Billie’s passion and her triumph, becoming an icon celebrated and immitted to this day. Still powerful and still relevant, Billie’s legacy continues.
BELVOIR STREET - UPSTAIRS THEATRE
14 SEP – 15 OCT 23
DURATION 1 HOUR AND 30 MINUTES (NO INTERVAL)