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Take seven sensational voices, a sizzling six-piece band, and three dozen or so of the sassiest, fiercest, funkiest, naughtiest, saddest blues tunes ever wailed in a darkened room, and what do you get? If you’re the producers of It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, you get the sassiest, fiercest, funkiest, naughtiest high-school-auditorium revue ever sold to the public at $50 a pop.
What you don’t get is actual theater, not with the paper-thin book and sit-right-there staging that make even “revue” a generous term for this two-hour concert. Sets and props? More like peach crates and Mason jars—as though we were settling in for a dinner show at the Cracker Barrel.
And what you don’t get, projected slave-ship sketches and plantation-era news clippings notwithstanding, is any real sense of the profound historical ugliness that gave birth to one of the world’s richest musical traditions. Blues manages to be at once fantastically rich in resources and infuriatingly impoverished in the way it presents them; if it started out as an homage, it ends up talking down to subject, audience, and performers alike.
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What is startling is how tremendously talented most of those performers are. Take Eloise Laws, whose contralto leaps from the dark like thunder, or Gretha Boston, who wields an outsized gospel soprano with an opera star’s superb technique, or Gregory Porter, whose supple tenor is as sexy and expressive as the moves he shows off in the deliciously nasty “Crawlin’ King Snake.” (You couldn’t quite call it choreography—can’t have choreography in a concert, after all—but credit co-creator and director Donald McKayle with the show’s “movement.”) The show opens with a short series of African chants, a nod to the blues’ most distant roots, and Laws and Boston haven’t sung more than a few notes of those unfamiliar phrases before the sheer torrential power of their voices sits you bolt upright; by the time the others have joined in, you’re leaning eagerly forward again, primed for an evening of hair-raising singing.
Thus the disappointment is especially bitter when you see how consistently Blues puts the Disney touch on those talents, layering on production (never thoughtfully), putting quotation marks around anything that threatens to cut too closely to the bone, underscoring emotional points that hardly need embellishment. Raunchy songs like “My Man Rocks Me” and “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” get a wink-nudge treatment that leaves them feeling like lewd lite; the Muddy Waters favorite “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” gets a half-gasped, half-growled reading from Michael Mandell, an expansive performer who punctuates that number and several others with the broadest sort of funny-fat-man gimmicks.
Blues meanders from Africa and the plantation South through Mississippi and Memphis and on up to Chicago to loiter in the precincts of “Goodnight, Irene” and “Let the Good Times Roll,” drawing the occasional connection among styles. It drifts off on side trips every now and then, too, dallying in the territory of gospel and country and bluegrass to illustrate how widely the blues’ influence has made itself felt. The results are uneven, though: The cast tears through rollicking party numbers like “Who Broke the Lock?” and “Wang Dang Doodle,” but Carter Calvert (presumably with the collusion of musical director Jim Ehinger) has convinced herself that “Walkin’ After Midnight”—yes, the Patsy Cline standard—was meant to be a barge-slow, broken-hearted torcher and that Miss Peggy Lee never supplied quite enough heat in her versions of “Fever.” Calvert’s reading of the latter is over-the-top sultry, all steam hisses and slow burns and finger-snaps, the sort of thing that would get her laughed off the stage at Blues Etc.—or even Blues Alley.
Similarly overstylized things happen in “I Put a Spell on You,” during which Laws does the witchy-woman act until her eyes bug—while, it should be noted, singing the hell out of the song. It’s the sort of presentation that’s a constant with Blues, which seems to think the audience won’t buy its wares unless they’re gaudied up past recognition.
Only “Strange Fruit” gets presented with any integrity; Boston, the most dignified performer on the stage, skips both vocal fireworks and visual theatrics to give Abel Meeropol’s harrowing lines the stark reading they deserve: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Boston’s performance is achingly simple and terrifically powerful, and as she spins out the last lines the hall falls utterly still. She holds around her that absolute silence that audiences offer to great art, and the moment approaches the profound—until director Randal Myler, true to form, adds that extra unnecessary touch with a photograph of a lynching victim projected in the darkness beyond Boston’s still-transfixed figure. Christ, you think, as the pressured air rushes out of the moment, could not this one lily have gone ungilded?
But no: Blues isn’t satisfied with the essence of the art it pretends to celebrate. It traffics in totems instead, distorted images of what the mainstream thinks those quaint, colorful bluesmen were all about. It’s a show for a middle-class, middlebrow audience—a crass, commercial sop to the kind of theatergoers who might like to imagine they appreciate the blues, but who wouldn’t want to get their linen trousers dirty in its home territory. CP