It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues This One is Worth a Trip to New Jersey
Also see Bob's review of High School Musical
I usually don't even say this even when I'm thinkin' it. After all, you can read what I and other critics write and decide for yourself what you might want to cross the Hudson to see. However, this show is kinda special, so I hope that you'll forgive my presumption when I say that the 10th Anniversary Reunion Production of the Broadway musical It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick (about an hour's ride from Penn Station on Jersey transit with a four block walk to the theatre) is well worth the trip to New Jersey.
Populated with five members of the original cast that appeared in the show at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre and then moved with it to the Ambassador Theatre, It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues is now comfortably swaddled in the intimate 200 seat theatre one of three regional theatres in which it was born and meant to be seen.
Although Blues is not quite a book musical, the script enhances the songs by providing a resonant historical context for them. The performers perform on a set which features two screens upon which evocative and often emotionally moving historical pictures and artifacts are projected. In the first sequence, there is an extended series of African chants, slave field worker songs, chain gang songs and spirituals beautifully and heart wrenchingly sung as the projections take us into the world of slave ships, slave auctions, plantation cotton picking, rural Southern churches, prison chain gangs and many faces of the people who lived in these perilous times.
Commonalities transcending race are introduced by musical director Dan Wheetman who talks about his family's escape from discrimination in Ireland and their hard scrabble country life here, and of the influence of African American music on Southern country singer-songwriters and their music.
There are a number of blues tunes here. However, what is mostly on hand with them is an eclectic blend of folk music, children's song, gospel, country music, ballads, humor-laden ribald rousers, and rhythm and blues as freed slaves migrate from the horrors of Mississippi to the relative freedom of Chicago. The penultimate song is a reminder of a past which we must all painfully remember. It is Lewis Allen's Strange Fruit, the once controversial song about lynchings which was immortalized by Nina Simone.
The closing is reserved for Larry Addison's beautiful late night lament for bereft lovers, "Members Only." As co-author and performer Charles Bevel has noted: "The Blues does not mean black music. It means having the courage or audacity to speak to what is in your heart ... That human attribute is colorless ... Its African roots cannot be denied, but most of its energy ... (is) acquired from a people being forced to continuously live on the outer edges of the majority culture in America." While there are a number of well known classic songs here, there are even more that are much less familiar and provide the thrill of discovery.
After Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" is launched in smooth Weavers style, it is suggested that it be performed "funkier." It ends up being performed with a bland pop rhythm and blues arrangement. Why not perform it in the truly gritty and funky style of the Leadbelly whom we know from Alan Lomax's archival field recordings? More importantly, would the sound board operators, please, please, not turn up the sound to distorted, ear-splitting levels for the rousing, big belting numbers? Neither the talented cast nor the intimate venue requires any such embellishment. Its heavy-handed employment at the opening sadly marred an otherwise extraordinary delightful show.
First, to the reunited originals. "Mississippi" Charles Bevel is one of the most delightful and apparently delighted performer-musicians whom you one could have the good fortune to encounter. Delightful singing Robert Johnson's traditional "Walkin' Blues", Bevel later delivers a smooth rendition of "I Can't Stop Loving You" that is ear-pleasingly reminiscent of the style of The Mills Brothers (rather than that than of Ray Charles). Lovely Carter Calvert covers the femme country songs and the pop style nightclub numbers among her assignments. She demonstrates her range with her flat out Patsy Cline style country and western "Walkin' After Midnight" and a torrid "Fever" a la Peggy Lee.
Speaking of torrid, veteran singer Eloise Law is on fire. Clad in a form-fitting red gown for the second act, Laws lends her powerful voice, gift for phrasing lyrics, comic timing and knowing confidence in her sex appeal to bring the house down with her funny and sexy declaration of independence "(While you been steppin' out) Someone Else is Steppin' In." Gregory Porter gets the lion's share of material and keeps full advantage to display his range and talent. Especially delightful is his own charming children's song, "Children, Your Line is Draggin'." Porter also brings the house down with a sexy, funny Willie Dixon showstopper, "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," in which his funny sensuous vamping of each of the show's three females is carried to a higher comic level by their sharply performed comic response.
Performer-musician Dan Wheetman has a pleasing laid back style presence which well serves Mississippi John Hurt's country blues tune, "Candy Man Blues."
Joining the reunited cast members are Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Chic Street Man. Reaves-Phillips sets our feet tapping and spirits raising with the gospel "I've Been Changed." Her powerful rendition reminded me of why I spent nights a half century ago at Gerdie's Folk City in Greenwich Village listening to the Grandison Family of gospel singers. Musician-performer Chic Street Man displays a very self-contained, quietly off-center humorous style which draws us to him. He is delightful making various everyday sounds when singing the children's song, "Bow Legged Child", and, equally so, as the anthropomorphic snake in the witty and sensual, "Crawling."
There is a five-piece band in addition to the three performer-musicians. The sure handed, insightful direction is the work of original director Randal Myler.
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues continues performances (Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 p.m. / Saturday, Sunday 3 p.m.) through November 16, 2008 at the Crossroads Theatre Company, 7 Livingston Ave,, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Telephone: 732-545-8100; online: www.CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org.
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman; based on an original concept by Ron Taylor; directed by Randal Myler
Cast: "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Carter Calvert, Eloise Laws, Chic Street Man, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Gregory Porter and Dan Wheetman