Credit: courtesy Congo Square Theatre

Portraying Billie Holiday, arguably the most iconic jazz vocalist of the last century, is well-traveled territory, posing a potential trap for dusty cliches. Yet Alexis J. Roston paints a vibrant portrait of the legendary tragic chanteuse in Congo Square Theatre’s revival of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

Director Shanèsia Davis perfectly cultivates the mood of a smoky jazz joint to tell the story of a fallen star who once graced the stage of Carnegie Hall, now an ex-jailbird reduced to playing dives. Roston’s boisterous portrayal of a woman unashamed of her rough edges is hilarious as she improvises and jokes with the audience. An expert jazz vocalist, she riffs effortlessly on the scaffolding of Billie’s versions, striking the delicate balance between imitation and personalization; her renditions of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Them There Eyes” are a treat for those familiar with Holiday’s, and a rendition of “Pigfoot,” written by Bessie Smith, one of Holiday’s early influences, is shout-out-loud amazing. As on all the songs, she’s accompanied by the production’s incredible music director, Anderson Edwards.

Writer Lanie Robertson doesn’t shy away from the messy details, including racism, addiction, and abuse. Difficult songs like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Strange Fruit” reveal the bravery and vulnerability of a woman fighting to keep her identity as others try to pry it away, revealing why her story continues to resonate.   v