The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
Seldom does everything in a production fold together to offer an audience something close to perfection. But perfection is almost achieved in The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.
Bessie Smith has intrigued blues and jazz fans since she became the most popular and best paid singer in this country in the 1920s and 1930s.
The production, which is now playing in the Allen Theatre, Cleveland Play House, through March 10, 2013, offers a dramatic script interlaced with great blues/jazz music.
Miche (pronounced Mickey) Braden plays Bessie Smith, serves as music director and arranger, and wrote two of the songs: "Bad Mood Blues" (with Joe Brancato) and "Devil Dance Blues (Sho Nuff Daddy)." If that isn't enough, Braden is a first-rate actress.
Bessie Smith has remained a sparkle in the music lover's ear. She was the subject of Blue Melody (1948), a short story by J. D. Salinger, and The Death of Bessie Smith (1959), a one-act play by Edward Albee.
The Devil's Music is set in an elegant, expensive "buffet flat," where blacks could gather for food, drink, entertainment and amusements of all kind. The segregation in this Memphis buffet flat provided blacks a chance to be free of whites and the problems of an integrated club or bar.
Smith makes her entrance strolling down an aisle in the Allen Theatre. She immediately takes charge of the evening's entertainment. She sings classics from American popular music: "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "I Ain't Got Nobody," "After You're Gone," "'TAin't Nobody's Business If I Do." In addition, the music includes Alberta Hunter's "Downhearted Blues" and Bessie Smith's "Dirty No-Gooders Blues." And the two songs by Miche Braden, which I mentioned earlier.
As Bessie Smith prowls the stage, she swills homemade booze (she didn't like the store-bought stuff) from one of several flasks on the stage. With a wide sense of humor, she tells stories about her failed marriage, her love for the young, thin chorus girls, and a long relationship with Richard Morgan, her friend and lover. She smiles with pride in serving as a role model for Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin.
She is accompanied by three instrumentalists who often exchange lines with herasking questions and making comments on something she has said. The time is Monday, October 4, 1937, and a Saturday night in late September, 1937.
Bessie Smith died in an auto accident in Mississippi. Her funeral, in Philadelphia, attracted thousands of people. The final moments of the play take her to the top of a short flight of steps. She stands in the large doorway, which is symbolic of her death, and turns to look at the instrumentalists on the stage and at the audience. Then, she smiles and makes her exit.
Years later, Janis Joplin and others bought a headstone for Smith's grave. Carved on the headstone were the words, "The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singingBessie Smith 1895 - 1937."
The only problem with this show is that it's too short. I would have enjoyed hearing two or three more Bessie Smith songs. This is a meaningful, bittersweet production. While evoking the spirit and style of the great Bessie Smith, Braden's memorable performance is performed with respect for Bessie Smith. This production should not be missed. For ticket information, call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
The next show in the Allen Theatre will be Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire (March 22 - April 14, 2013).
The Allen Theatre
- David Ritchey