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By Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor, and Dan Wheetman
Directed by Randal Myler
At Arena’s Kreeger Theater
to January 19
It is possible to endorse every one of the laudable motives that led to the creation of It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, to applaud the educational resolve of its creators and the professionalism of its cast members, and still be annoyed by its presence at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater.
A connect-the-dots presentation in which patrons are led by their noses from African chant to rock ‘n’ roll while a slide show depicts everything from slave ships to Josephine Baker, the evening is not unlike a big-budget high-school assembly. Its seven-member faculty presents unapologetically showbizzy versions of songs that are all about down-to-earthiness, rarely engages in anything that could really be called staging, and regards as the height of profundity a line like, “Everything has changed…my name…my woman…all that’s left is the blues.”
A hit with some 15,790 students in Colorado, where it originated as an education outreach program for the Denver Center Theatre Co., It Ain’t Nothin’ would be unassailable were it being presented as one of Arena’s community programs at Living Stage. Or at Ford’s Theatre, where it could pep up the pre-Christmas Carol tourist crowd. Or as a KenCen youth program, where it would be a tad racy but otherwise rousing. But sandwiched between Moliere and Stoppard as one of eight attractions at D.C.’s leading resident theater, it’s at best a time-waster. Not embarrassing, exactly, but hardly what subscribers had in mind when they bought into Arena’s season.
The evening begins with a resonant “odun de, odun de” intoned by a cast that arrives on stage nightclubbily enough to make the hip swivels, hand waves, and foot stomps they’ve been assigned by choreographer Donald McKayle look precisely like the ersatz Africana they are. Thereafter everyone takes turns stepping forward to illustrate not just how the blues developed as a mixture of African rhythms, gospel, and traditional folk music, but how the blues inflected song stylings from C&W to Broadway.
Ron Taylor (the original voice of Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors) turns his booming, gravelly baritone to the growling of “sexy big man” numbers and traveling ballads. Carter Calvert, a sweet blond showgirl with stage presence to spare, crooks her finger, arches an eyebrow, and makes everything from “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” to “Now I’m Gonna Be Bad” sound like it was penned by Cole Porter. Reedy-voiced music director Dan Wheetman, sounding more than a bit like Hank Williams, bridges the gap between the lonesome whine of a country-singin’ cowpoke and the deep-throated moan of…oh, there’s no point in elaborating on all this. With two seconds’ thought you can connect the dots yourself, even without having seen the show.
Sometimes the performers’ idiosyncrasies prove interesting; other times they just get in the way. Lita Gaithers, for instance, was having so many vocal problems opening night it was hard not to root for her. Early on, as she grimaced and strained, you could assume her ragged voice was the result of having given her all for the previous night’s audience. Pitch problems could similarly be chalked up to exhaustion. But once her mike malfunctioned, establishing pretty clearly that any belting she was doing was chiefly sleight of hand by the sound engineer, forgiveness was less forthcoming. Her broad expressions and head shaking just didn’t jibe with crooning, which was all she appeared to be doing once the curtain of amplification lifted. By the time she got to a grotesquely overstated “Strange Fruit,” apparently convinced that patrons wouldn’t grasp its lyrics unless she underlined every syllable, she was doing enough flat-out mugging to invite charges of assault.
The others fared better. Though awkward when trying to make scripted banter sound impromptu, both “Mississippi” Charles Bevel and Chic Street Man are engaging precisely because their differences bracket the show’s music. The former specializes in straight-ahead blues delivered in a throaty rasp, the latter in the sort of insinuating styling that can transform a few flattened vowels into the sexiest drawl this side of Mae West. And it would be hard not to be taken with the classiest singer of the bunch: Eloise (sister of flutist Hubert) Laws, who has a jazzy way with risque lyrics that allows her to purr her songs into submission.
If Patricia A. Whitelock’s costumes are a trifle tacky (unpressed black satin pants do nothing for Chic Street Man in the second act) they don’t really get in the way. Don Darnutzer’s lighting is appropriate, and the show’s biggest assets are Cimarron International’s mostly somber, always evocative projections on three angled screens behind the performers, and the rip-roaring six-piece backup band that shows up after intermission. Marc Moriva’s wailing sax solos are particularly impressive.
None of which elevates the evening to the level of, say, a theatrical revue like Ain’t Misbehavin’, or even an elaborately staged pop program like Beehive. It Ain’t Nothin’ is just a concert with transitions (“the war is over…the neighborhood’s over…all that’s left is the blues”) and a few visuals. That seemed enough for Arena’s opening-night crowd, which stood and clapped along at the finale, but it left me with a bad case of the wish-they’d-found-a-better-way-to-fill-the-Kreeger-Theater blues.