Theatre Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is beautifully raw and emotional

Adelaide’s Space Theatre has been wonderfully transformed into Emerson’s Bar and Grill. With moody dark lighting, café seating near the stage and a three-piece jazz band, the audience is transported back to the 1920s. Kym Purling plays the part of pianist Jimmy Powers, who introduces us to the band, with Victor Rounds on Double Bass and Calvin Welch on drums. Emerson’s Bar and Grill was one of the few gin joints in Philadelphia where Billie Holiday felt at home. 

Billie Holiday, played by Zahra Newman saunters on stage to sing “Crazy She Calls Me.” Newman is particularly convincing as Holiday, her voice, mannerisms, and attitude make us feel that we are in her presence. The gardenia in her hair was a perfect accent.

The show is more than just a retrospective of Holiday’s songs; storytelling makes up a good part of the show. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, we learn of the highs and more often, the lows of Holiday’s troubled life. 

Billie Holiday was born to sing, that’s all she wanted to do, but the prejudices of the day meant that often she wasn’t even allowed into the places where she played. She would be forced to sit with the coloured help in the kitchen, and not even allowed to use the toilets. 

Over the course of the show, stories of her drug addiction due to her first husband Jimmy Munroe, being raped at a young age, imprisonment, and more are laid bare. However, none of these setbacks dampened her conviction to sing. The script by Lainie Robertson pulls no punches.

During her life she was almost arrested for singing “Strange Fruit” about lynching in the deep south, yet that did not stop her. “God Bless the Child” was an equally important song to the Black community, giving hope for self-determination. 

At times, there was barely a dry eye in the house as the story unfolded, with Newman bringing real emotion to the stage. The strength of character is deeper than simply singing the songs. Newman played Billie Holiday as best as we could imagine. 

A well-deserved standing ovation at the close of the show gave the audience a moment to release the tension and energy that built up during the performance. This show was presented by the State Theatre Company of South Australia in partnership with Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney and the Melbourne Theatre Company. 

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is an honest and raw portrayal of Billie Holiday’s life with a talented cast and a flawless production. 


The reviewer attended opening night on 29th August

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – State Theatre Company plays until 9th September