Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Devil's Music: Seeking Bessie Smith
The Devil's Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith assumes dramatic life about 65 minutes into the 85-minute, one-act, essentially one-woman mono-musical at the George Street Playhouse. However, until then, The Devil's Music is disconcertingly off-course and unengaging.
Miche Braden as Bessie Smith, with
Jim Hankins on bass, Scott Trent on piano and Anthony Nelson on sax
The setting is a "buffet flat" in Memphis, Tennessee, on the last night of the life of Bessie Smith, "Empress of the Blues." Bessie and her three musicians have repaired there after performing in concert before a segregated, all-white audience. Here, she will spend the evening boozing, while singing and telling us the story of her-hard scrabble, Jim Crow-marred life. There is levity in her ribald tales and jokes about her sexual appetite. Her words (reinforced by comments from her band) tell us that Bessie Smith was a tough, take no prisoners cookie. To her chagrin, her bassist Pickle lets slip that she really has a heart of gold.
Pickles informs us that a "buffet flat" is a place where people would come for food, booze, music, gambling and sex. With its scarlet red wallpaper and furniture, it would seem that a less euphemistic description for the establishment would be bordello. Smith addresses the audience directly, making it clear that we are stand-ins for her bordello audience. From the start, there is a disconnect. We are clearly not part of that setting. We are not eating, drinking, partying or being raucous. Thus, the conceit demands a cabaret setting. What we are, at the performance reviewed, is a bunch of grey-haired ofays sitting politely in a quiet, dark theatre, gallantly endeavoring to respond to Smith's admonition to show greater enthusiasm if we expect her to continue singing for us. It is not believable that Smith would cram so much autobiography into this performance (Pickle: "She usually didn't say much, but that night she did"). Author Angelo Parra's clunky expository writing doesn't help ("One night, I was at Lucille's, that's a nightclub over in Nashville").
The Devil's Music is more cabaret than theatre. For over an hour, there is a total lack of dramatic conflict. Then Smith recounts how she was unfairly deprived of custody of her adopted son John because of unfair and damaging accusations made against her (Smith was bi-sexual) by her revengeful and vicious ex-husband. Smith steps to the lip of the stage, looking out above and beyond the audience, and engages in a dialogue with an unsympathetic judge (whose voice emerges from a speaker at the rear of the house) who is accusatorily asking her about her ex's accusations and her arrest record. Highly charged drama and emotional involvement with Smith rears its beautiful head for the first time all evening. Three first-rate, bluesy pop songs follow, and Bessie Smith leaves the flat to meet her new man Richard Morgan and a tragic, fatal automobile accident.
Although Miche Braden has a strong, lilting voice, there's no getting around the fact that she is a far cry from being in a class with the great Bessie Smith. Her work is more than fine on pop songs such as "After You've Gone" and comedy novelty songs such as "T'aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do." However, the great blues singers stir the soul and send chills up and down with their deep, heartfelt emotion. The sound has to come from pain somewhere deep inside. Both musically and dramatically, Braden works conscientiously to evoke Smith. However, dramatically, she comes across as a classy lady carefully acting out the role without ever getting inside Smith's soul. Similarly, her blues singing never seems more than carefully rehearsed sounds and gestures. I felt none of the thrills that I received from hearing great blues singers in Greenwich Village clubs in the 1960s. Given the narrow vein of construction of blues songs, they cannot sustain an evening in the theatre when sung perfunctorily. If you want to hear what made Bessie Smith so special, go over to YouTube and take a look at "The Empress" singing W.C. Handy's great "St. Louis Blues" in a clip from the short movie of that title that Smith made in 1929.
Highest praise is due to the three-piece band that accompanies Braden. Bassist James Hankins gets billing for the role of Pickles. His perfectly pitched voiceover style dialogue frames the evening. Both Hankins and pianist Scott Trent deliver the goods musically. Both get little in the way of solo work. However, when they finally get solos during "T'aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do," they score big time. There's a mirror hanging on the wall behind Trent, and if you get the right seat, you will have the considerable pleasure of watching him tickle the ivories in that mirror. The strongest musical impression is made on the tenor sax and clarinet by Anthony Nelson. His expert solos dominate the instrumental accompaniment. Nelson's choreographed, insinuating duet with Braden's vocal on "St. Louis Blues" is a musical and visual delight.
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith continues performances (Evenings Tuesday-Saturday 8 p.m. / Sunday 7 p.m. (except 3/29)/ Matinees: 2 PM Thursday (except 3/19), Saturday, Sunday) through March 29, 2009 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717 ; online: www.GSPonline.org.
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith by Angelo Parra; directed by Joe Brano