Updated: Jun 19, 2020
"...With a wink, a leer and a wicked, earthy chuckle, she envelops the audience in a big, motherly musical hug"
As the wailing sounds of a bluesy saxophone ring out in clipped, melodic fragments, suddenly you’re transported to a smoky flophouse joint in ’30s Chicago, where broken dreams, sad hearts and soul-filled song dominate an evening, brimming with the uneasy living of a time gone by. You can’t sing the blues without a full heart and a troubled spirit. And what a sound unhappiness makes in Laguna Playhouse’s production of “Blues in the Night.”
This is Sheldon Epps’ 25-song, sung-through musical featuring songs from 20’s and 30’s blues artists like Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Harold Arlen, Ida Cox, Benny Goodman and Johnny Mercer, and headlining four of the sauciest, nattiest and most goosebump-inducing vocalists around anywhere.
“Blues in the Night,” which opened February 20th at Laguna Playhouse to capacity crowds and playing through March 10th, is accompanied by a sassy, soulful onstage five-piece band led by an excellent Abdul Hamid Royal (“Five Guys Named Moe,” “Ain’t Misbehavin”), on Piano, together with Lance Lee on Drums, Omar D. Brancato on Bass, Louis Van Taylor on Reeds, and Aaron Smith on Trumpet.
With original orchestrations, vocal arrangements and music by Chapman Roberts and Sy Johnson, the show is set in a rundown Chicago hotel and bar in 1938. The dialogue-free show focuses on three women's sweet, sexy and sorrowful relationships with the same lying, cheating, snake of a man who wronged them. Their interweaving stories are defined through the torch songs and blues when it was originally staged by Epps and Gregory Hines at the Off-Broadway Playhouse 46, where it ran for 51 performances in 1980. And what music! This revue may be true blue only some of the time, but unless you're a blues purist, you'll be won over by this celebration of great old songs in a minor key.
Center to the show is Yvette Cason, playing a character called simply, The Lady from the Road. Ms. Cason portrays the classic, smoky-voiced red-hot-mama channeling Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith or Sophie Tucker, with a big heart to match – one that’s been broken enough to teach her a thing or two about men. With a wink, a leer and a wicked, earthy chuckle, she envelops the audience in a big, motherly musical hug and slathers on the sexual innuendo with delicious abandon, turning seemingly innocuous references into brassy, bawdy fun. The man may be long gone, but her rueful, randy memories sure aren’t.
Ms. Cason is joined in this 1982 Tony-nominated revue by Paulette Ivory as The Woman of the World, a seductively stylish woman that has known the high life in her past, only to be back on the skids once again. A once affluent and “glamorous woman with fancy French phrases,” her appetite for cheap wine and love leaves her feeling empty. She can only ache now to try and recapture her past as she romanticizes love and pours out her heart in song.
Jenna Gillespie is The Girl with the Date, a bright, energetic young woman with a wide range of emotions. Still hopeful that her date will turn out to be the love she’s been waiting for, one can see a hint of both doubt and desperation in her face. Ms. Gillespie’s delivery has a cool, clear vibe that speaks sophistication and complete breath control for holding a quiet note without a waver. Her “Willow Weep For Me” stopped the show cold with thunderous applause. When she adds that fiery enthusiasm to her singing, she sizzles as righteous anger overtakes her character. Still, her sultry version of “Taking a Chance on Love” (by Vernon Duke, John La Touche and Ted Fetter) is light and lovely. She is delightful to watch with her soul touching presence.
Their distinctive dramatic personalities come through only with the lyrics, especially Ms. Cason, who gets most of the low-down, jazzier numbers. The catalogue of songs lock the cast mostly into a generalized, abject gloomy ''bluesiness.'' But by the end, the tone changes from dirge-like depression to fist-waving defiance.
Much of the time the women lean languorously in their doorways -or sit at tables - fondling their tumblers of booze. The characters don’t go beyond stereotype, but do make them distinct, and much is made of our heroines' very slow efforts to get dressed, presumably for men who stand them up, all done with an inordinate amount of evening robes, dresses and undergarments.
The charismatic Robert Gee plays The Man in the Saloon, a man who is not only charming, but slightly dangerous (Chester Gregory plays the part on alternate days with similar animal magnetism). The Man is a free-spirited musician who can’t be tied down. For him, life is too short to dance with just one woman. The Man is an underappreciated singer, spending much time at the bar in the hotel, but can hoof with the best of them. The Lady describes the Man as “a stuck up fool who sits with the band - the cock of the walk.” He doesn’t have a lot of money, yet “life is milk and honey for him.”
Briefly framing the setup, the lights come up on three women sitting in what look like individual hotel rooms, all in period dress, reflecting Chicago in the late 1930's. All have known better days and now find themselves living on the edge and sharing alcohol-fueled memories in this seedy, neon-lit Chicago dive hotel and bar. As much as they long for a man to hold them, they're alone.
The Lady from the Road, a warm and beautiful woman in her late 50's or early 60's, has surrounded herself with her showbiz memories of her brighter past, rummaging through her trunk filled with old costumes, hats and feather boas. The Woman of the World, a stylish creature of indeterminate age surrounded by an equal amount of perfume and liquor bottles, spends the evening preparing for her gentleman caller. The Girl with a Date sits in a sparsely decorated room determined to make a fresh start in the big city, while behind them, The Man in the Saloon watches with a wary eye and comments with a silver tongue.
The first act presents blues and jazz via a big band sound with Bessie Smith’s “Blue Blues” featuring the whole company. The Man sings about his hard luck as the women dream of a better time to come ("Four Walls, And One Dirty Window, Blues"). Ms. Cason wows the crowd in George W. Thomas' flamboyant, "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues," as she shimmies and dances. When all three women sing together in harmony, it’s magical. An example is the astounding Bessie Smith’s “It Makes My Love Come Down,” after which, Ms. Ivory knocks ‘em dead in an up-tempo version of “Lush Life.”
The Man enters, dreaming of a better life, and sings the vaudeville-style blues piece recorded by Ida Cox, "Wild Women Don't Have No Blues," to each of the women, instructing them. The Women respond with "Lover Man," then joins him again in a reprise of "Wild Women Don't Have No Blues." Later on, the Lady emerges in shimmering silk and a '20s headband to sing the hysterically raunchy "Kitchen Man," a song by an upper-crust dame with a houseful of servants whose kitchen man has thrown in the dish towel. By the way, if you’re expecting raspy, throw-me-out-in-the-alley- blues or a dramatic connection to the music, that’s not here most of the time. Lush musicality is.
Act two has the Lady remembering what good old loving used to feel like in “Blues in the Night,” as the Woman and the Girl add their voices from their rooms, taking turns and backing her up. The second part adds a touch more personality, thanks in part to Bessie Smith’s “Dirty, No-Gooder’s Blues” (which allows Ms. Cason to soar), the women in unison with Alberta Hunter's “Rough and Ready Man,” and “Reckless Blues” by Ms. Gillespie. As Ms. Cason sings the plaintive "Wasted Life Blues," and breaks your heart, we're reminded of the musical links between gospel and blues – my favorite moment of the evening. Then Mr. Gee turns up the heat in the fabulous “Baby Doll” toward the end, after which he struts off stage cockily.
In the finale, all four singers team up in the harmonious, "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” which evokes the Andrews Sisters, blending once again into the “Four Walls” reprise. We are left with an emotional impression of what life was like in the late 1930's in Chicago - good music, hard lives, and dreams that stretch on long into the night.
Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is almost too perfect. The band and singers sound as if they are in a recording studio, and it was hard to believe these modulations were coming from performers on stage. You would swear if you didn’t know better, they were lip-synching at times. There was not one shrill note, no misplaced beat, and the vocals and harmonies from all the cast were peerless, unparalleled, second to none. Jared A. Sayeg adds evocative light design to his set, cleverly changing the colors of the windows in the hotel during select songs. Dana Rebecca Woods’ sassy costumes are delightful, sexy and provocative, with an assortment of wigs completing the look by Danielle Richter.
Jazz vocalist and pianist Carmen McRae once said,“Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it’s flat.” “Blues in the Night” – a celebration of American music from a period in history that will never be forgotten, will be continuing through this weekend only at Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. Performances remaining are today at 2pm and 7:30pm, Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm and 7:30pm, and the final performance Sunday at 1pm. Tickets may be purchased at https://lagunaplayhouse.com/2018-2019-main-stage/blues-in-the-night/