Theatre review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Belvoir St Theatre

Every element of this journey into the closing stages of Billie Holiday's life and career is entrancing from start to finish.
Lady Day. Image is a woman in a white dress backed by a trio singing into a mic in front of an audience.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill imagines one of the final performances from jazz legend Billie Holiday with artistry and charm. Written by Lanie Robertson with musical arrangements by Danny Holgate, this spoken-word tour of Holiday’s life celebrates her signature talent, charisma and resilience in the face of severe trauma and injustice.

The show is set in Philadelphia after the New York club scene had pushed Holiday out – mere months before her death at only 44 years of age. Director Mitchell Butel transports audiences to a cozy jazz club straight out of 1950s America, where the stage is a refuge for Holiday. She is at home roaming Emerson’s Bar & Grill, inviting audience members, fellow musicians and bar staff into her life as peers and – uncomfortably – “friends”.

Alternate performer Elenoa Rokobaro (Moulin Rouge, RENT, Tick, Tick… Boom!) is mesmerising as Holiday. Rokobaro, who won Best Female Actor in a Leading Role at the Sydney Theatre Awards and Glug Awards for her role in Caroline, Or Change (Hayes Theatre Company), soars in this iconic role – unsurprisingly, given Rokobaro’s strong roots in cabaret and musical theatre. Poetically, Rokobaro shares a similar first name with Billie Holiday, whose birth name was Eleanora Fagan.

Two Holidays are on display. The audience marvels at the lioness, resplendent in her white gown, trademark gardenias and growling voice. But Holiday’s guard is down. Perhaps she doesn’t care anymore, perhaps she has lost patience with the US. Either way, patrons at Emerson’s Bar & Grill are invited into her inner world to meet Billie – the daughter, the wife, the woman isolated and made vulnerable by systemic racism, sexism and abuse. She’s a woman who is sharp, warm, funny and driven by emotion.

Rokobaro settles deeper into the role with each number as Holiday’s mental state deteriorates. She
embodies Holiday’s pain, progressively slurring her words and mastering the emotional final scenes.

However, this is not a solo show. The suave performances of Holiday’s onstage jazz trio – comprising celebrated musicians Victor Rounds on double bass, Calvin Welch on drums and Kym Purling (also the Musical Director) on keys – enrich and anchor the production. In particular Welch, with his flair on the drum kit and velvet blazer, could have walked right out of a 1950s jazz club.

Holiday’s onstage musings are steeped in memory. Robertson deftly scatters contextual information throughout Holiday’s monologues without veering into a biography. Through casual asides and mumbled jokes, Holiday reflects on complicated relationships with her mother (“the Duchess”) and first love Sonny. She also pays tribute to blues singers Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith who inspired Holiday to create jazz “with blues feelings”. The impact of racial segregation, lawful during Holiday’s entire lifetime, is inextricable from her story. The heart of the production is Rokobaro’s moving rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, a song protesting the lynching of Black Americans that became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

Read: Performance reviews: The Hotline, Poet No.7 and Zaffé, Melbourne Fringe Festival

Every element of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is entrancing from start to finish. The ambience created by set and costume designer Ailsa Paterson, combined with evocative lighting design by Govin Ruben, who washes exposed bricks in warm gold and blues, creates an immersive sense of old-age glamour. Led by director Butel and associate director Zahra Newman, who doubles as Holiday, the power and panache of this production is a credit to the entire team.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
A co-production by Belvoir St Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia
Writer: Lanie Robertson
Director: Mitchell Butel
Associate Director: Zahra Newman
Musical Arranger: Danny Holgate
Cast: Zahra Newman, Kym Purling, Elenoa Rokobaro, Victor Rounds, Calvin Welch
Set and Costume Designer: Ailsa Paterson
Lighting Designer: Govin Ruben
Musical Director and Additional Arrangements: Kym Purling
Sound Designer: Andrew Howard

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill runs at Belvoir St Theatre until 15 October and will be performed at Arts Centre Melbourne from 19 October to 2 December.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Madeleine is the General Manager of Darlinghurst Theatre Company and the co-founder of LGBTQIA+ theatre company Fruit Box Theatre in Eora, Sydney. She is admitted to practice law and has worked in commercial law and federal government. She has previously written for Reuters, the International Press Institute and the European Journalism Centre. *All views expressed on ArtsHub are her own.