Regional Reviews: Seattle
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues
Also see David's review of Black Coffee
Whenever the Tony Award nominated musical revue It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues lightens up and allows itself to be a little jaunty and naughty it comes alive. But for about half of its running time, this handsome looking, vocally rich show rambles in too much melancholy for its own good.
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues is based on an original idea by the late Ron Taylor and written by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Dan Wheetman and Taylor himself. The show is undeniably educational (it began its life as a 45 minute touring school show produced the Denver Center Theatre) and an audience pleaser. But co-author Myler's direction is a shade too languid at times, and Donald McKayle's choreography relies on stylized movement more than any genuine dance moments. Things also stay too blue for too long, especially in the longer first act where the roots of American blues music and gospel music are the mainstay, and in which the immensely talented cast rarely ventures out of its chairs. When we get into act two, things lighten up considerably, the music is more varied and more musicians join in. Best of all the actors get on their feet and play more to and with the audience.
There is little room to quibble with most of the performances, as this is a cast of consummate actor/singers and musicians. "Mississippi" Charles Bevel (a co-author) is perhaps the heart of the ensemble, with standout solos on "Cross Road Blues" and a wonderful rendition of "I Can't Stop Loving You," and rockin' the theatre in duets with Chic Street Man (pictured at right) on "Who Broke The Lock" and "Irene, Goodnight." Chic scintillates on his own with "Come On In My Kitchen" and "Sidewinder." Another of the show's writers, Dan Wheetman, serves as musical director and also has accomplished vocals with "T For Texas," "Candy Man Blues," and leading the company on the sassy "Mind Your Own Business." Kingsley Leggs makes his presence known on the hilarious "Hoochie Coochie Man" and a rich rendition of "The Thrill is Gone."
As for the ladies in the show, Eloise Laws is a scene-stealer deluxe, with a presence and delivery that might be described as a cross between Sarah Vaughn and Eartha Kitt. She is blissfully low-down on "Someone Else Is Steppin' In" and when she sings "I Put A Spell On You," well, she does! With a twenty-gallon smile and a voice that would soar without any amplification, Jewel Tompkins does wonders on "St. Louis Blues" and puts her own distinct stamp on the Billie Holliday classic "Strange Fruit." Tamra Hayden has a good number in "Now I'm Gonna Be Bad," but fails to raise the temperature with an off the mark version of the Peggy Lee classic "Fever." The company does a fine job throughout on its ensemble numbers, and the show-closing "Members Only" is vocally and emotionally thrilling.
Robin Sanford Roberts' scenic design is handsome, effectively utilizing vintage photographic projections, and Don Darnutzer's lighting design is appropriately dark and brooding. David K. Micklesen's costumes are choice, especially the hot numbers he has designed for the ladies in act two, and Christopher Walker's sound design is the best I have ever heard in a musical at Seattle Rep. Special kudos to the four piece onstage band, especially guitar artist Joel Hoekstra.
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues runs through May 8, 2004 at Seattle Repertory Theatre in Seattle Center. For further information go to the Rep's web site at www.seattlerep.org.
- David-Edward Hughes