Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill - Belvoir St Theatre (NSW)
Reviewed by Claira Prider
Belvoir St Theatre
Playing until October 15th 2023
- Newman expertly recreates Holiday’s focused tone, elongated vowels and lingering consonants while physically embodying the role with exquisite finesse -
As you enter the theatre, you're transported to a musty South Philadelphia jazz bar in 1959. There are exposed brick walls with cabaret style seating surrounding the stage, dimly lit by the mismatched lampshades that extend out to the house lights. On the small corner stage sits a baby grand piano, double bass and drum kit, soon to be filled with the tunes of Billie Holiday. Written by Lanie Robertson, Lady Day at Emerson Bar & Grill is a one woman, jukebox musical that tells the story of Billie Holiday’s life. Premiering in 1986 the work includes several of Holiday’s beloved hits dispersed with dialogue. In partnership with State Theatre Company of South Australia and Melbourne Theatre Company, Belvoir St Theatre presents Lady Day at Emerson Bar and Grill.
The work begins with a musical trio filling the theatre with a few standards led by jazz pianist Kym Purling assuming the role of Jimmy Powers, Victor Rounds on double bass and Calvin Welch on drums. Zahra Newman walks onto the stage wearing a floor length, A-line halter neck, floor length floral white dress with elbow length, fingerless gloves and sings ‘I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone’. Alternating between song and dialogue, Newman has the audience in the palm of her hand as Holiday tells us how she got to where she is today. A quote from early in the work aptly set the scene for what lay ahead “My mother married at sixteen, my father was eighteen. I was three.”
Photos by Matt Byrne
We learn of the persecution, prosecution, rape, drug addiction and of her not being able to re-enter the New York cabaret scene after completing a jail sentence let alone being able to enter a bathroom in the club. Newman’s storytelling is transformative, a highlight being when she talks about the writing of ‘God Bless This Child’, the inspiration behind the lyrics she wrote and the connection she felt to her mother when singing it. Superbly recreating Holiday’s focused tone, elongated vowels and lingering consonants, Newman even captures the thinning of her vocal quality towards the end of her career from drug use. Musically sensitive and vocally outstanding, Newman delivers a powerfully moving performance.
Newman magnificently embodies Holiday's stance on her singing: “the whole basis of my singing is feeling.”
Govin Ruben’s multi-faceted lighting captures the jazz club scene perfectly while heightening Holiday’s alienation with a spotlight and creating a truly immersive ambience. Ailsa Paterson’s set and costume design exemplifies the unfair and heartbreaking direction Holiday’s life took; she looked and sounded as if she belonged under dazzling lights on a reputable stage, but instead was performing in this dingy bar. Mitchell Butel’s direction of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill creates an achingly beautiful, history rich performance, and I love that we even got to see the connection she had with her dogs with the most well-behaved little pup that came on stage.
Newman delivers a powerfully moving performance with a flawless musical accompaniment that beautifully supports and drives the plot. I felt honoured to witness such an exceptionally personal performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill that magnificently embodies Holiday's stance on her singing: “the whole basis of my singing is feeling.”