The tragedy and aching beauty of Billie Holiday laid bare

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Belvoir St Theatre, September 16

Until October 15
Reviewed by JOHN SHAND

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 whiskey.

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.

Zahra Newman captures the grandeur and pathos of Billie Holiday late in her career.

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.

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.

Drama Theatre, September 15

Until October 14
Reviewed by JOHN SHAND

The birds are singing blithely and the scorching January sun glistens on what we now call Sydney Harbour. The heat apart, all would be well with the world, were the news from Kamay (Botany Bay) not so disconcerting. Nawi – boats – have arrived, again; huge, as tall as trees, like the ones that came 18 years earlier, only this time there are 11 of them. What does it mean? What do they want? Should they be driven off or welcomed?

Jane Harrison’s exceptional play is set in Warrane (Sydney Cove), as six elders and the young emissary of a seventh – representing seven clans of the Eora nation – gather to debate what to do about what we now call the First Fleet. Since The Visitors premiered at 2020’s Sydney Festival, Harrison has adapted it into a novel and revised it as a play, so now two characters are played by female actors, and more local language permeates the text.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s striking set of a sandstone outcrop renders these shifting dynamics in three dimensions.Credit: Daniel Boud

Wesley Enoch directs this joint production between Sydney Theatre Company and Moogahlin Performing Arts, the strong cast headed by Luke Carroll as Gordon, an elder of the land on which they gather, and the one most inclined towards bellicosity. Late in the play we learn why, and Carroll is supreme at delivering this slice of personal history from Cook’s 1770 visit.

Harrison condenses time to suit her dramatic needs, so as the meeting progresses the ships approach, the initial three becoming the full 11 before the 75-minute play is over. At first, only Wallace (Dalara Williams) is disinclined to shoo the strangers away, but gradually the consensus unravels, and the numbers swing towards welcome, amid group dynamics vaguely reminiscent of the vacillating jurors in Twelve Angry Men.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s striking set of a sandstone outcrop renders these shifting dynamics in three dimensions, as Enoch moves the actors between being higher and lower in relation to one another, as well as closer to or further from the audience, at which they gaze as they watch the approaching fleet.

They are horrified to witness a hanging, confirming their worst fears about the sorts of brutes on board. Before that Joseph (Kyle Morrison) has related how, during the visit of 18 summers earlier, his mob had all their spears stolen by the visitors. “I can’t even explain the concept of permanently borrowing,” he says, his language having no word for theft.

But there are protocols to be observed. Unless they clearly intend harm, visitors to country must be welcomed, shown hospitality and healed if they are sick – and how could these people not be sick, cooped up and desperate for water? Besides, as Gary (Guy Simon), the chair of the meeting, points out, “Visitors don’t stay. That’s why they’re called visitors.” This is backed up by Jaky (Elaine Crombie), who is adamant the pull of their own country must surely be too strong to keep them here.

Joseph Wunujaka Althouse and Beau Dean Riley Smith complete the cast, the characters, as specified in Harrison’s text, dressed in suits, emphasising the formality of the gathering. To this end, the ensemble acting could be more restrained early on, and take longer to flare into full-blown anger.

Perhaps, too, some of Harrison’s dodgy jokes could be jettisoned (“curiosity killed the echidna”), but ultimately this is a visceral production of an important play: one that presents the version of a pivotal moment in this nation’s history that wasn’t documented – just as we approach another pivotal moment.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Hayes Theatre, September 13
Until October 8

It starts with such artless charm, and yet by the end is dragging its ergative verbs and uncountable nouns to the point where two hours seems interminable. Most of the fault lies with William Finn’s music, which not only fails to generate memorable songs, but as Act Two trundles along, starts to pile up truly dire ones, bullying the singers into shrillness – not helped by the sound being too loud.

If all that begs the question of why the new September Remedy Productions would choose this 2005 musical as its launchpad, the answer is twofold. First, the show is salvaged by Finn’s lyrics and Rachel Sheinkin’s book, which bulge with such funny lines and likeable characters that it’s a shame the music constricts the show’s laugh muscles so much. Second, director Dash Kruck has splendidly cast the production, so the characters fizz and pop as the jokes come zinging at you, and you even forgive the songs – for a while.

Casting a spell: Daniel Raso, Axel Duffy, Rebecca Ordiz, Jessica Kok, Adeline Hunter, Matthew Predny.Credit: Supplied

Six school kids (played by adults) compete in a spelling bee, joined by three nervous audience members, who are gradually eliminated, as then are the children, until two are left to fight over the trophy. The show has the inherent problem of being at its most entertaining at the start, when everyone’s on stage. As the contestants are whittled down, so the concept thins, and the songs’ tedium can no longer be camouflaged.

James Haxby stands out as Vice Principal Panch, the quizmaster who gives the impression he’d rather be de-stinging wasps than extracting obscure South American rodents (capybara, anyone?) from a spelling bee. Haxby’s performance is so dry it crackles, and his sidekick is the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick as the saint-like teacher Rona, while Nathaniel Laga’aia makes an auspicious professional debut as Mitch, the community service-serving ex-con.

Among the kids, the female characters are more convincingly drawn than the males. Rebecca Ordiz, Adeline Hunter and Jessica Kok all have a ball excavating their inner school girls, with Ordiz having marvellous rag-doll mannerisms as Olive, Hunter cutely deploying wide eyes and a mouth full of lisps as Logainne, and Kok being the know-it-all Marcy. Axel Duffy, Matthew Predney and Daniel Raso complete the cast, the latter in the central role of the health-compromised William Barfee, played with a voice unnervingly like Trump’s.

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