Any theatergoer expecting in this revival of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill an excuse for an Audra McDonald concert won’t find the singer’s full-bodied, mellifluous voice here. Instead, McDonald gives a pitch-perfect channeling of Billie Holiday’s warbled, trumpet-like sound — perhaps the most eerie stage effect on Broadway this season. Presenting a lonely, unstable, drink-and-drug-addled Lady Day in an imagined live performance four months before her passing, McDonald, with a hard, smoldering expression, is determined to show her audience every emotional scar Holiday sustained at the hands of misogynistic men and a racist world.
Under Lonny Price’s direction, she moves between the stage, where she’s backed by a three-piece jazz band, and a small section of cabaret tables, where she interacts with spectators and pours herself drinks from the full bar. The first obstacle for McDonald is the disjuncture between her own admiring audience and the nearly empty, late-night setting in which we’re meant to imagine Holiday performing. The second is Lanie Robertson’s contrived script. Both are overcome through a commitment to the role so overwhelming we must take the portrayal seriously. James Noone’s ghostly set and Robert Wierzel’s luscious lighting support McDonald’s unapologetic intensity, injecting a startling freshness into the injustice of Holiday’s demise.