By Adam Rafferty
Great American jazz singer Billie Holiday, nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ and famous for her unique vocal style, is about as intimidating a historical character one can choose to portray. Yet Zahra Newman, in a virtuosic performance, captures the diva so movingly and with such vocal dexterity that she makes the titanic achievement seem as breezy as Holiday’s 1937 hit ‘Easy Living’.
Set in 1958, just a year before she was to pass away from cirrhosis of the liver, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill allows Holiday to tell her own story in an almost cabaret style. More a play with songs, than a jukebox musical, the music is performed by Newman and a three-piece band to the audience as though we were part of the crowd at Emerson’s South Philadelphia club – eight small tables on the front of the stage offering a ‘close-up’ performance experience for lucky audience members.
The band is led by Jimmy Powers (pianist Kym Purling, with Edward York on drums and Dan Witton on bass) who as part of the onstage trio brilliantly deliver a jazz lover’s delight of truly excellent music. Jimmy introduces ‘Lady Day’ and holds the show together with improv as Billie’s increasingly erratic and drunken behaviour threatens to force the show off Emerson’s stage.
Playwright Lanie Robertson’s ingenious plot construction creates the means by which Holliday can share revealing stories of her sadly difficult life that led her to various types of addiction. Tales of racism are unfortunately expected, but the depths of the segregation she experienced prove the strength of will that was required to be able to work in the entertainment industry as an African American woman in the first half of the 20th century. Even more revealing are the stories of violence and sexual assault she experienced, and her disturbing gravitation towards abusive relationships. The saddest recollection is possibly the truth behind the lyrics of her most famous hit ‘God Bless the Child’.
Director Mitchell Butel makes great use of the stage for a show that could be very static otherwise. Butel has Holiday stalking through the onstage crowd sat around their cabaret tables, making them part of the story as she directly offers cautionary tales and brings delight with her bubbly rendition of Bessie Smith’s ‘Gimme a Pigfoot’. The constant movement could be distracting but when stillness is required Butel knows how to bring the focus in with great intensity, especially for the moment ‘Strange Fruit’ is performed.
This is highlighted beautifully by Govin Ruben’s moody lighting design on Ailsa Paterson’s evocative night club set design. Sound is balanced perfectly by Andrew Howard.
As the last leg of a co-production with State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre, this staging is obviously very well bedded in, and Zara Newman is so smoothly confident, it feels like we’re seeing the real Billie Holiday herself. While she is almost upstaged by Lady Day’s furry friend, the charmingly cute Pepi (trained by Paws on Film), Newman otherwise commands the stage by delivering a mesmerising humanity to her version of the late, great chanteuse.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is playing right through until 2 December, but in the Arts Centre’s intimate Fairfax Studio, it’s sure to sell out quickly, and this a production not to miss for jazz lovers and theatre fans alike.