It’s an immediately immersive experience. The Fairfax Theatre in Melbourne’s Arts Centre is transformed into the epitome of a downtown jazz club as a trio of musicians play with gusto. Before Zahra Newman even steps on stage as the legend of jazz, Billie Holiday you are 100% in the story.
Based on one of Holiday’s final performances in 1959, we’re in Philadelphia and Holiday is towards the end of her career. After a brutal upbringing that included poverty and abuse, Holiday escaped only to marry trombonist Jimmy Monroe who would introduce her to heroin and lead her down a path of addiction and imprisonment.
It’s a tragic tale of discrimination in 1950s America, but what people remember about Holiday isn’t her stint in jail, or her addictions, but that magnificent voice liked burnt velvet that transcends this earthly world.
Zahra Newman doesn’t simply ‘play’ Billie Holiday in this production she IS Billie Holiday. It’s as if the iconic singer has lent Newman her voice, so pitch-perfect is her tone. Each vocal intonation, each riff, run and note are flawless as Newman sings her way through Holiday’s catalogue of hits including, God Bless the Child, Strange Fruit and What a Little Moonlight Can Do.
The story chooses to focus on the more tragic side of Holiday’s life, rather than her passionate activism. Watching her unravel is uncomfortably similar to the footage of a desperately unwell Amy Winehouse months before her tragic death.
Newman is accompanied by a trio of incredible musicians, Kym Purling on piano, who also performs the character of Jimmy Powers (a semi-protector role for Holiday), Dan Witton on upright bass and Edward York on drums. The simple set up and expert musical arrangements allow Newman’s enigmatic Holiday to shine.
With no fourth wall to hold her back, Newman chats to the audience calling us all her ‘friends’. And she means it. She is warm and genuine, even as she becomes more intoxicated and messy throughout the evening, her warmth remains.
Written by Lanie Robertson and Directed by Mitchell Butel, the Tony Award-winning play (it’s described as a jukebox musical but that feels wrong) is lifted by the stunning set design by Ailsa Paterson and lighting by Govin Ruben who have both recreated a 1950s run-down nightclub to a tee.
Yet it is Newman that is this show, her performance is carefully and delicately crafted, undeniably beautiful and pays tribute to one of the icons of music with grace and an uncanny ability to mimic Holiday’s vocal style.
Be transported by this stunning piece of theatre that blends jazz and history, soundtracked by the almost unbelievable vocals of Zahra Newman.
A co-production by Belvoir St Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia
Lady Day at Emersons Bar and Grill
by Lanie Robertson
Director Mitchell Butel
Venue: Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 19 October – 2 December 2023
Tickets: $33 – $122