The Space Theatre, Festival Centre, Tue 29 Aug
Billie Holiday is often associated with the tag ‘the lady sings the blues’ after the film depicting her life from 1972. Holiday herself saw things as more nuanced: “I sing the blues with a jazz beat”. This is just one of many insights about Billie Holiday revealed in the marvellous new production from the State Theatre Company. “Singing is living for me” was another. Lady Day is in fact just as much about the person that was Billie Holiday as it is about her music. And it succeeds admirably in both realms.
Lady Day was one of Holiday’s nicknames and the show takes place at one of her favourite venues – the Emerson Bar and Grill in Philadelphia in 1959. It was to be one of her last performances. Holiday died later that same year. In retrospect, Lady Day becomes a memorial to an icon, and a harrowing first person account of the trauma she endured. Deeply entwined in this trauma was the shocking level of racism she experienced. Add to this drug and alcohol addiction, time in prison, and being raped as a young woman and you have a recipe for desperation. Thankfully for us, and Holiday herself, she chose music to express and exorcise these torments. It is quite likely that it was music that enabled her to live as long as she did. She died a young 44 but along the way left a legacy of soulful, bluesy songs that drew on every ounce of emotion.
The Space Theatre has never looked better. It’s rare to feel that just being in a performance space, even before the show begins, was a real treat. Decked out as a 1950’s bar with colourful lamp shades on each table and a waiter in white showing patrons to their seats and offering them drinks was just brilliant to observe. The place was alive with expectation and looked gorgeous.
At one point the recorded music seamlessly morphed into a live band and it was time for Jimmy Powers (of the Jimmy Powers Quartet) to introduce the star of the show. Billie Holiday took the stage looking resplendent and after a deliciously long pause bursts into song. Drinking as she goes it gets harder and harder for her to focus on the songs, and she starts sharing anecdotes of her life. If she gets too maudlin or dangerously close to saying something that may land her back in prison Jimmy Powers lovingly suggests a song on the piano. Sometimes she follows him; sometimes she doesn’t. She needs to feel which songs to sing she tells us. This delicate, beautiful relationship between Powers (played by Kym Purling) and Holiday was really touching, and beautifully played by both parties.
The musical accompaniment was wonderful – full of class and nuance, the setting magnificent, and then there was Zahra Newman. What a performance. Not only did she deliver the songs with eloquent passion and exquisite phrasing, her portrayal of the human side of a star unravelling before your eyes was extraordinary. Bravado, vulnerability, wit, charm, grace and poise – all in appropriate measure. It felt like she was Billie Holiday.
A magnificent concert; magnificent theatre. Music and theatre combined to tell a compelling story with class and style.
Presented by the State Theatre Company in association with Belvoir St Theatre, and the Melbourne Theatre Company
Directed by Mitchell Butel
Musical Arrangements by Danny Holgate
Lady Day continues at the Space Theatre at various times until Sat 9 Sep. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.