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Blind Lemon Blues

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Akin Babatunde
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Let's not quibble too much over the colors - there are only so many any songwriter-showcase biomusical can evoke, even under the best of circumstances. If Jersey Boys - the reigning king of the rocky genre, and one with a smoothly varied Four Seasons score - can only manage a few shades of brass and a creamy grey or two, what chance is there for something like Blind Lemon Blues? Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde's whirlwind trip through the real and imagined songstack of blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson is limited to sunset violet and sepia, depression and Depression in vision as well as fact.

That doesn't mean you're guaranteed a bad time at this show, which the York Theatre Company has just reopened (it played an extremely limited run in early 2007), just an unexceptional one. Govenar and Babatunde, the latter of whom directed, choreographed, and stars as Jefferson, have even taken the unusual step of composing well-matched new songs (and quite a few), but it's not enough. When the primary accompaniment is guitar (played by the admittedly virtuosic Skip Krevens) and a few snatches of piano, and the nearly 70 songs performed are limited in genre to one of either "Southern heartbreak" or "Southern sex coyness," its originality and your patience don't take long to evaporate.

A conceit such as this can only work with either an Atlas-strength book or no book at all. Instead, Blind Lemon Blues possesses the merest thread of a scenario, which only highlights the show's all-consuming thinness. To wit: The folk musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly (Cavin Yarbrough), is recording his last album in his New York apartment in 1948, and reminiscing how Jefferson paved the way for his success. Lead Belly becomes drawn into recalling how Jefferson ascended from the poor streets of Dallas to stardom and a Paramount recording contract, but died (in 1929, at age 36) just when he should have been achieving his greatest success.

Cavin Yarbrough and Alisa Peoples Yarbrough.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The score, which blends traditional spirituals with Jefferson and Govenar-Babatunde compositions, as well as others from the likes of Lillian Miller, Hattie Hudson, Bobbie Cadillac, and Lillian Glinn, fixes for us the musical heritage of Southern blacks at just the moment their voices were starting to be heard on a national scale. And the nonstop progression of these numbers ensures that you're swept away in a tide of drunken, down-and-out tunefulness that always convincingly promises better days are somewhere - if perhaps years or decades - just around the bend.

The show is unquestionably effective in presenting the aural panoply of the era. But it's less successful at saying much that's meaningful about Jefferson's or Lead Belly's life, or the specifics of their art. The sheer volume of the songs is exactly what prevents you from assimilating them, their inherent sameness of style what prevents you from appreciating their individual uniqueness. The talented group of performers may occasionally get notable moments in the spotlight - Yarbrough with Jefferson's "Got the Blues" and his wife, Alisa Peoples Yarbrough, with Glinn's "Craving a Man Blues," or Inga Ballard with the medium-rare suggestive "Butcher Shop Blues." But more often than not, the unremitting progression of the songs swallows, if not anonymizes, them altogether.

Babatunde escapes this by dint of occupying the title role, and he couldn't occupy a better showcase for his talents. He imbues his leathery-gravelly voice with a down-home dustiness that conveys all of Jefferson's poverty and loss with each rumble of his authoritative baritone, and a warm sense of humor pervades every furrowed-brow glare and body-shaking belly laugh. Cavin, too, finds some wonderful moments as Lead Belly, making a moderately moving realization of the dues he owes his unsung pioneer. The rest of the company, which includes Carmen Ruby Floyd, and Timothy Parnham, make for a scrupulously polished, if low-charisma, ensemble.

Since its first York appearance, the show has been scrubbed a little and eased into a lot - it's friendlier, more laid-back, and genially communal in a way it wasn't originally, even with Lilias White in a supporting role. Watching it is as painless as partaking of an on-premises blues trio at an upscale restaurant over your appetizer, or attending an energetic backers' audition trying to sell a full theatrical experience without all the pieces in place. But the problem with Blind Lemon Blues isn't that it's incomplete or difficult to follow, only that it tries far too hard to drown us in the music of Jefferson and his once-and-future contemporaries, none of which needs so hard and purple a sell.

Blind Lemon Blues
Through October 4
York Theatre Company at The Theatre at Saint Peter's—Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: York Theatre Company

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