The quality without which no artist can conquer the summit of their art. The ability to transmit a profoundly felt emotion to an audience with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of finesse. It is the quality that differentiates the great from the merely good. Billie Holiday had that quintessential quality. Playing her in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Zahra Newman shows quite a quota of that quality.
From the end of her first song, summoning the spirit of Holiday, spotlit and with exquisite poise, dramatic pause and phenomenal phrasing, there was a palpable feeling of the audience restraining a desire to leap to their feet in rapturous applause. That standing ovation was definitely going to come, its assurity cemented by the assuredly confident performance in both song and speech by Newman, a consummation beyond mere mimicry.
Lanie Robertson’s script is an intricate weave of story and song, a deft assortment and arrangement of Holiday standards combined with harrowing lived experience. “My mother married at 16, my father was 18. I was three.”
The mother daughter schism that fuelled God Bless the Child, the hauntingly elegiac, Strange Fruit, and the problematic and tragically emblematic Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, all get full throttle performance, as do the other nine or so songs, creating an emphatic dramatic resonance.
Newman is stupendously supported by a trio of musos who never leave the stage. Grand pianist Kym Purling tickles those ebonies and ivories to pearly perfection, accompanied by cool bassist, Victor Rounds, and drummer superb, Calvin Welch.
It’s a helluva combo aiding and abetting the transportative power of Ailsa Paterson’s bare brick cavern club production design, both set and costume. Tables and chairs at the foot of a tiered stage where some of the audience sit with a single attentive waiter enhance the evocation of Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Philadelphia circa 1959, as does the light shades hanging from the ceiling and extending into the house lights.
Speaking of lights, Govin Ruben gives excellent LX, redolent of the club atmosphere in the song sets, with heightened textures elevating the intense story telling narrative.
Director Mitchell Butel has guided his talented team to the summit of a truly marvellous theatrical production, both a tremendous tribute to Lady Day, and a shining showcase for the assembled performers, the playwright and the designers.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
by Lanie Robertson
Director Mitchell Butel
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre NSW
Dates: 14 September – 15 October 2023
Bookings: belvoir.com.au or (02) 9699 3444