Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues
The news around Westcoast Black Theater Troupe just keeps getting better and better. Just before the opening of their final production of this season, It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, they announced the purchase of their home base for the past four seasons, which will allow them to expand many aspects of their operations. Purchased at auction, they are well on the way to raising the money needed, but they are still accepting contributions toward a capitol campaign. All best wishes are extended to our friends at WBTT.
If that isn't good enough news, the production is a resounding hit, as they stretch their performing muscles. It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues was conceived by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman. After a sold out Off-Broadway run in 1999 the show moved to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. The show attempts to trace blues as it evolved from field songs, Appalachian folk songs, evolving into blues shouts and other permutations. The second act looks at how all of these mutated in the world of commercial music. The authors have done a remarkable job, offering an overview that actually helps the audience make sense of a large body of music and musical styles.
The outstanding cast of regulars and newcomers alike all offer up musical resources that I did not suspect they had. Tsakok Porter, always one of my favorite WBTT artists, shows herself to be a blues shouter par excellence with "Danger Blues" and then follows up with the grittiest performance of the classic "St. Louis Blues" I have ever heard. Ariel Blue, another WBTT stalwart, is excellent as always on some of the saucier numbers, such as "Come On in My Kitchen" (with Horace Smith) and ""My Man Rocks Me," but also offers a moving gospel "I'm Gonna Do What the Spirit Says Do" and digs deep inside herself to offer up the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit." Whitney Mignon Reed rounds out the women in a part that calls on her to show considerable dancing talents, as well as offering the Appalachian "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" in the first act and the Patsy Cline classic "Walking After Midnight" in the second. This is a very strong debut with this company.
Horace Smith, coming off a very strong performance in Jitney a few months ago, dazzles as a multiple threat artist completely commanding every number he fronts. His highlights include "Black Woman," "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," and "The Thrill Is Gone" (along with guitarist Apostle J.L. Cash). Early Dean, also making his debut, is very strong in the sinewy numbers "Danger Blues" and "Cross Road Blues" (also featuring Apostle Cash). Rounding out the male contingent is Donald Frison, also featured as a dancer and in "Walking Blues." It is to his credit that he more than holds his own in the company of so much talent.
All cast members also are featured in ensemble numbers to great effect. Apostle J.L. Cash, who has a theology career in his spare time, plays guitar. He solos on "Blues Man" and is featured in several other numbers. The other guitarist, Greg "Gig" Burke, a blues man from the inside out, solos on "T for Texas" and "Mind Your Own Business" and is featured throughout the evening. These two guys give soul to the proceedings, they know how this music should go and probably helped the others to get the feeling.
The band led by J. Cash, II (son of J.L. Cash?) featuring Marcus Thompson on auxiliary keyboard, Marvin Hendon II on bass, and Johnny Walker on drums along with the above mentioned guitarist ride this music home, not a pale imitation but the real deal.
Director/Choreographer Harry Bryce contributed strongly, the dances are authentic in style and evolve as time rolls onward in the second act. Great performances do not come about without a strong guiding hand. When the audience walks into the auditorium they are greeting by paintings by Scenic Artist John C. Reynolds representing various aspects of the world of the blues. They are highly effective in setting up a mood. Scenic Designer Jim Florek has created an effective playing area. Costumes by Cristy Owen continue to be a strong asset; in the first act she had to create African costumes that can morph into early American. All other technical aspects of this production are top notch.
I am aware that tickets are selling very wellmost performances are completely sold out. If there is any way you can get to see this production, run to see it. It is definitely one of the strongest productions I have seen by the WBTT, and that comes at the end of a season of four very strong shows.
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues presented by WBTT Theater, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota, Florida, 366-1505. Through May 12, 2013. For more information, visit www.wbttsrq.org.
Cast (In Alphabetic Order)