Review by Carly Fisher
Whether you know Billie Holidays’ full life story, or only her major hits such as ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘God Bless the Child,’ there is something about Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill that captivates the most intense fan, or the newbie, alike. I personally fall more into the ‘major hits’ category when it comes to my familiarity with Holiday’s music before the show and yet, within minutes, I felt as though I’d been following her career and knew intimately her personality and history.
This success can be attributed squarely to one key feature of the production - the superb performance delivered by Zahra Newman. Newman’s characterisation of this icon is considered, nuanced and extremely well executed. Though I have seen Newman in a number of shows to date, none have shown her talent to the same extent as this performance. A role that saw Audra McDonald take home (another) Tony, Newman equally deserves significant industry praise for this tour de force performance.
Does that mean I loved the show…well, not entirely. Lanie Robertson’s script is unquestionably well researched, offers great depth and detail and cleverly integrates the history of each circumstance so that little pre-knowledge is required to feel as though you really know this Jazz legend. That said, the script lacks necessary ebbs and flows of light and shade and instead almost trauma bombs the narrative. Lady Day had a horrifically tragic life filled with racism, abuse, toxic relationships and the like…but that’s not all she was and the lack of inclusion and ultimately celebration for her great achievements beyond her music felt like a large oversight in the story. With so much tragedy and with the emphasis on alcoholism and drug dependence introduced from quite so early in the piece, the show felt a little long as the paced dropped in the second half. Ideally, the substances could have been introduced just slightly later, allowing her demise on stage to pace through the show a bit more swiftly.
Script aside, what Director Mitchell Butel has done with this show is beautiful and Butel’s directorial hand comes through strongly in the well executed characterisation, design and audience interaction that the show achieves. Ailsa Paterson’s production design is impeccable and fantastically appropriate for the show. The transformation of the Belvoir space is a remarkable feat and Paterson’s design perfectly balances the ‘wow’ factor for the audience on arrival into the Upstairs theatre, with the feeling that, being slightly run down, this intimate club is evidence of a major slide back for Holiday after being banned from performing around the clubs of New York City. Govin Ruben’s lighting design is also beautiful and offers a depth and intricacy to the space that draws the audience in immediately. The inclusion of mismatching lamp shades throughout the entirety of the space was a clever addition to expand the cabaret stylings of the stage throughout the theatre. This would certainly be one of my favourite shows in the way of design in the 2023 Sydney season.
The show essentially recreates one of Holiday’s final performances - at a club in Philadelphia in 1959, a city that she makes no secret holds no place in her heart. We feel her trauma and desperation in being back in this space, we experience what it is for an icon to be relegated to insignificant but we also feel that fight, not to take that lying down but to get up and give the best show possible.
Newman is accompanied by a three piece band featuring the musical stylings of Kym Puling, Victor Rounds and Calvin Welch. When the trio start playing pre-show, I am sure I was far from the only one in the audience feeling that I would leave satisfied if this was the whole show - together they are smooth and vibrant on stage. Puling doubles as an almost carer for Holliday and gives us great insight into what it was to be in the orbit of this great icon, particularly later in her life.
Though filled with music for a highly enjoyable evening, this show will leave you discussing and challenging post-show which, to my mind, proves its great success. To think about what this great talent had to endure simply because of when she lived and what she looked like, is immense. It’s fantastic to know that so much has changed, but it’s a reminder as well to continue, all of us, to strive for better conditions, treatment, respect and equality for all. This was, after all, less than 65 years ago…