Review by Matthew Hocter
It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Tonight, whilst far from imitation, the exploratory homage into one of musics most complex, talented and grossly misunderstood artists of the 20th century, Ms. Billie Holiday, was done with a level of dignity, honesty and beauty like no other.
Zahra Newman plays the titular role in Lady Day, a nickname bestowed upon Holiday by the saxophonist Lester Young in her heyday. Lanie Robertson’s play, a semi-fictionalized account of one of Holiday’s final performances in Philadelphia before her death in 1959, sees the singer self reflecting as she becomes increasingly intoxicated throughout the performance. The role was most notably played by Audra McDonald back in 2014, for which she also won a Tony (Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play), meaning that Newman had big shoes to fill and she did not disappoint. Her ability to capture Holiday’s essence perfectly, whilst providing a very personal musical journey that should one close their eyes, could easily be forgiven for thinking that you were right there, sitting front and centre in Emerson’s Bar & Grill in Holiday’s very presence.
For lack of a better word, Newman is that damn good.
To say her voice is brilliant is a gross understatement. Her ability to hone in on Holiday’s unique vocal nuances is not only uncanny, but a testament to that fine line of homage vs. imitation, something Newman manages to never cross. Her voice delivers strength when the song calls for it and yet never shies away from the vulnerability or emotion that so much of Holiday’s work requires. The ability to go from songs as powerful as “God Bless the Child” to “Easy Livin’” and then into one of the most poignant and heart wrenching protest songs to ever be recorded and one that would forever be intertwined with Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” would require a level of care and attention that not just any actress could deliver. Newman managed to cover all of these attributes and then some.
The stage setting was simple but effective. Joining her on stage, was the musical trio consisting of Kym Purling as Jimmy Powers on piano, Victor Rounds on Double Bass and Calvin Welch on Drums. There was a natural fluidity between them that was unforced and almost as if they have been doing this for years. They haven’t and this is what also made this play incredibly special. It just felt so unforced from the minute they took to the stage, until the very final act.
Whilst this play provides a poignant and intimate portrait of Holiday and her struggles with addiction and racism, it is also a firm reminder of the enduring impact - both then and now - that Holiday has had and continues to have on the world of Jazz and popular music. The richness and expressiveness in Newman’s voice captures every aspect of Holiday and backed by the brilliance of her trio, this is anything but a look in on a simple songbook, more an insight into a woman, a black woman, who forever changed the world both musically and on a human level that few could ever lay claim to.