Audra McDonald has done it again. In Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, a new Broadway drama imagining a late-in-life concert by the great jazz diva Billie Holiday, McDonald delivers a mesmerizing performance that is not so much an act of mimicry or even impersonation as it is a transformation. A record-breaking sixth Tony Award seems like a foregone conclusion.
While McDonald's vocal inflections can seem a tad overstudied in the show's opening number, ''I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,'' as she spits out breaths at the end of each musical phrase, the actress quickly settles into the role and erases all memory of her operatic belter's soprano and her naturally bubbly personality. In their place: a voice both smoky and breathy, and a demeanor that suggests a hard-lived life in the first half of the 20th century.
The physicality of her portrayal is similarly remarkable. Subtly padded in a flowing white gown (by former Project Runway finalist ESosa), McDonald convincingly suggests a woman ravaged by years of dependence on alcohol and heroin. She weaves among the café tables at the intimate Circle in the Square, clutching a tumbler of booze or her beloved Chihuahua, Pepi, and stumbles about the concert platform and, in one heart-stopping moment, off of it.
In Lanie Robertson's well-researched wisp of a script, set at a small Philadelphia bar just four months before Holiday’s death in 1959 at the age of 44, the singer naturalistically doles out biographical reminiscences as between-song patter. She recalls her long-suffering mother, dubbed the Duchess, before launching into ''God Bless the Child'' and her treatment by a racist hostess at a Birmingham gig with Artie Shaw before crooning, ''Southern trees bear a strange fruit.'' (Lonny Price, directing with the syncopated pacing of a jazz standard, over-literalizes some of the storytelling with unnecessary projections of key figures from Holiday's life.)
The most remarkable aspect of McDonald’s performance comes at the very end, just after she exhales the last notes of the elegiac ''Deep Song.'' Instead of retreating backstage before the curtain call, she remains at her microphone and the lights are dimmed before coming up again. And in the blink of that blackout, the actress transforms once more. The light and vitality return to her eyes, along with the familiar glow. It's Audra McDonald before us now, accepting heartfelt thanks for one of the most exquisite and haunting performances we’re likely to see on stage this year. A–