Theatre Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Zahra Newman switches from soliloquy to song effortlessly, while maintaining the persona of the iconic and indomitable Billie Holiday

Zahra Newman switches from soliloquy to song effortlessly, while maintaining the persona of the iconic and indomitable Billie Holiday

Presented by: State Theatre Company South Australia, Belvoir St Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company
Reviewed: 29 August, 2023

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill imagines one of the last performances of Billie Holiday’s life in March 1959, and what may have occurred between artist and audience at the intimate venue. The play exists somewhere near the intersection of autobiography, tribute, and concert. As Holiday, Zahra Newman tenderly recounts the singer’s greatest passions, friendships, and inspirations. 

Newman is faultless as Billie Holiday. She invokes Holiday in every word, mannerism, and distinctive twitch of the mouth. She switches from soliloquy to song, while maintaining the persona of one of the most legendary artists of the twentieth century. 

The band members also stand out, not just for their excellent accompaniment, but their fond concern for Holiday and painted smiles for the audience in turn. Kym Purling on piano, Victor Rounds on double bass, and Calvin Welch on drums all help to bring this melancholy performance to life. 

Newman talks from the heart, catching the eyes of different audience members with striking vulnerability and sincerity. “These are my friends,” she explains to her band, arms outstretched. She beautifully performs iconic songs such as What a Little Moonlight Can Do, When a Woman Loves a Man, and God Bless the Child in between her reminiscences. Holiday was inspired by Bessie Smith, listening to her vinyl records as a young child. Billie’s heart aching fondness for her friends, artists Lester Young and Artie Shaw. The destructive and passionate love affair with her first husband, Jimmy Monroe. 

Director Mitchell Butel and Set & Costume Designer Ailsa Paterson have created a special set, which includes several cabaret style tables for audience members near the stage. This allows Newman to walk amongst the crowd during the show. 

Newman deteriorates on stage as Holiday continues to drink, resulting in several confronting moments. She stumbles drunkenly while ascending the stairs, at which the audience laughs awkwardly. She clutches a small chihuahua for emotional support, but the dog is visibly scared by the noise and crowd. It is difficult to tell if these moments were intentional. 

Lady Day offers a unique, emotional, and eye-opening night of musical theatre not to be missed. 

Reviewed by Nicola Woolford

Photo credit: Matt Byrne

Venue: Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: 25th August – 9th September, 2023
Duration: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $49.00 – $85.00

More News

To Top