Belvoir St Theatre, September 16


A 1950s jazz club: tables and chairs where Belvoir’s stage usually is, a dimly lit bandstand in the corner and a stool for Lady Day. Not that being a nightclub chanteuse perched on a stool is really her thing. But she does need somewhere to put her whisky.

Kym Purling and Zahra Newman. Photos: Matt Byrne.

Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill depicts Billie Holiday in her final months. She’s been released from prison for a narcotics conviction, but she’s barred from performing in New York clubs – her lifeblood. Instead, she’s forced into the Philadelphia boondocks of Emerson’s, and she doesn’t quite see this as her stellar career’s crowning achievement.

As a role, it’s a huge ask, and Zahra Newman has nearly all the answers. At first it seems we’re to get a pastiche of Holiday when she sings I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone, although that may have just been nerves. Thereafter she hits a consistent silvery patch, where she has Billie’s vibrato, her little yodel-like octave leaps, her insertion of spoken words to mask range limitations and compound truth, and she even catches the cigarette, alcohol and drug-induced fault-lines in Billie’s late-period voice – like fine porcelain that cracks but doesn’t break.

Photos: Matt Byrne.

Although impressive, mimicry won’t make your heart bleed, whereas Newman intermittently impales you on her own veracity, most obviously with God Bless the Child and the eternally horrifying Strange Fruit.

Yet the singing’s only half the deal, because fundamentally this is a play with songs attached, and if anything, Newman is even better at being Billie when she’s talking; telling us of the highs and lows of her life – and few people have known such a gamut. On the one hand she was raped, beaten, persecuted, addicted, jailed and ripped off. On the other she had the infinite joy of collaborating with some jazz’s finest players, and of taking jazz singing to a previously unexplored place of truth, sadness and world-weariness; one that would be a model for Miles Davis’s trumpet playing.

The play is not perfect, and nor is Newman. Nonetheless she, director Mitchell Butel, pianist Kym Purling, bassist Victor Rounds and drummer Calvin Welch give us such a strong taste of the life and art of one the greatest singers of all time that it stays in the mouth for hours afterwards.

Until October 15.