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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (MTC), Arts Centre Melbourne - 95 minutes, without interval

The turbulent life of jazz singer Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) is on show in an intimate club setting in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.


Holiday (7th April, 1915 – 17th July, 1959) was nicknamed Lady Day by her friend, saxophonist Lester Young.

Photos by Matt Byrne


Among her musical influences were Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.


Being an African American, Holiday was subjected to racism and exclusion, but rose above that to become one of the brightest stars.


She was noted for her exemplary vocal delivery, tone and improvision.


Zahra Newman puts on a bravura showing, inhabiting the troubled soul of Holiday, while singing up a storm.

Her sultry voice perfectly suits the role, as she sashays her way through one of Holiday’s final performances at a rundown bar.


We are in Southern Philadelphia in March 1959.


Accompanying her is the accomplished and soulful Jimmy Powers Trio (Kym Purling filling the role of pianist Jimmy, as well as the show’s musical director).


On upright bass is the hatted Dan Witton, with Edward York on drums.


As Holiday, Newman shares a collection of revealing details and anecdotes about Lady Day’s life and times.

They include her love of her mother, “Sadie”, known as The Duchess, her great grandmother, and her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, a small-time drug dealer.


There is also the impact of the war on her father, himself a muso.


In fact, Holiday was born to an unwed teenage couple. During her all too short life, she endured rape, segregation and jail.


She remained defiant, going on to forge a highly storied career.


But she was also plagued by addiction (she was a drinker and smoker) and ill health, which is on full display in this fine MTC production, directed by Mitchell Butel.


Newman warbles several of Holiday’s iconic songs, ‘God Bless the Child’, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, ‘Somebody’s on My Mind’ and ‘Strange Fruit’, among them.

This is a show not without surprises, as the songstress is shown losing her way and introducing us to an unlikely stage companion.


The Tony award winning Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill was written by Lanie Robertson, with musical arrangements by Danny Holgate.


Kim Purling was also responsible for some additional arrangements in the MTC production.


Newman takes to the stage in a beautiful, white, flowing gown and matching, fingerless, long white gloves.


She wears glistening drop earrings and an equally eye-catching necklace.


Both the costuming and evocative staging are the consumate work of Ailsa Paterson.

As we enter Fairfax Studio, we are confronted by what – for all intents and purposes – is a jazz club.


On stage are three instruments and an old-style, chrome coloured microphone.


Immediately in front of that are positioned eight small, round, black tables, on which are glasses and table lamps, and around which are black, wooden chairs.


Before the curtain figuratively rises, MTC audience members fill those seats, behind which is the traditional tiered seating at the Fairfax.


Complete with a surfeit of lighting banks, overhead throughout the theatre are colourful lamp shades.


It is a magnificent setting – not to overlook the lighting design by Govin Ruben and sound design by Andrew Howard – in which to appreciate the mastery of Holiday.


Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – playing at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until 2nd December, 2023 – is a captivating experience to savour.

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