Referring to herself as "two tons of fun," Sandra Reaves-Phillips has more than her girth to recommend her, as she proves in her musical show, "The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz." This is a show, or rather a showcase, that has become something of an annuity for the singer over the past 15 years.
Reaves-Phillips has returned for the holiday season with her entourage of "Late Great Ladies" to Crossroads Theater with the show she conceived, wrote, and first presented at New York’s Cotton Club. In 1987, her show was given its first theatrical production by Crossroads, under the direction of Ricardo Khan. This is the terrific entertainer’s first time at Crossroads’ Livingston Avenue venue, but she continues to use Khan’s original staging — not a bad move.
Reaves-Phillips appears to be having a ball presenting her interpretations of the greatest black singers of jazz and blues. And she makes sure we do, too. A formidable package of vim and vigor, Reaves-Phillips has a voice that won’t quit and an ample body to support it.
As an homage to "The Late Great Ladies" — Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Billie Holiday, ending with a special homage to Mahalia Jackson — this show is like a primer course. Considering the ground covered, it is more than enough. If Reaves-Phillips’ performance cannot help but be a little self-aggrandizing as well, it is a performance backed with skill and an obvious love for her subjects.
Within a simple but effective bandstand setting, a splendid quintet, billed as "The All Star Jazz Band," under the musical direction of Paul Ramsey, gives more than excellent support to the singer and the musical chronology.
Musicians Paul Ramsey (bass guitar); James E. Weidman (piano); Eddie Pazant-Reed (sax and clarinet); Mike Ridley (trumpet); and Wally Gator Watson (drums), are used as key figures in the show’s scheme: one that presents each of the "Great Ladies" in short, often sassy, scenes that reveal character and a specific era.
Even before the star’s entrance as Ma "The Phantom" Rainey, the band has won us over with rousing variations of Ellington’s "Take the A Train." The band’s musical contribution throughout, and most excitingly while Reaves-Phillips is doing a fast change of costume, is significant.
We get a touch of the Roaring ’20s with Rainey’s arrival. Strands of pearls dance around Rainey’s shimmering gold lame gown as she brushes the air with an ostentatious feathered fan. Rainey dives into a "take me as I am" rendition of "C.C. Rider."
The first of many quick costume changes rivaling those of Josephine Baker, and she’s back, bedecked in white plumage and a raspberry gown as a noticeably inebriated Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues." It’s the Depression Era and Smith has turned up at rent party where she makes the deliciously suggestive "I Need A Little Sugar in My Bow," and "Put It Right Here" as risque as you’d want. Adding just enough dialogue to reveal the personal pain and suffering of these singers, Reaves-Phillips does a first-class job throughout the show of evoking each one’s spirit, if not always her particular style.
Moving on to the bossy, no-nonsense Ethel Waters, affectionately know as "Sweet Mama String bean," Philips recreates a typical Cotton Club rehearsal. Her full-throttle rendering of "Shake That Thing," in which she encourages the obligatory audience response, reminds us of the Waters before she had her spiritual makeover and found her signature song, "His Eye is on the Sparrow."
Reaves-Phillips, who is dynamic and looks darned healthy, amazingly secures quite a bit of the pure sound and the poignant personality of the heroin and cocaine addicted Billie Holiday. That she keeps her own dominating personality from neutralizing Holiday’s low-key delivery is commendable, especially with such Holiday classics as "Solitude," "Good Morning Heartache," "Them There Eyes," and "God Bless the Child." At the Wednesday night preview, Crossroads’ audience was enthusiastic in its response.
Except for a right-on delivery of "What a Difference a Day Makes," Reaves-Phillips doesn’t quite have a handle on Dinah Washington, "Queen of the Blues." But she really lets loose in her Mahalia Jackson testimonial, which gives her free rein to transport herself and the audience in a rousing finale of "When the Saints Go Marching In."
No small contribution to the show is made by costumers Michael Hannah and Francia Maldanado. However near or far off Reaves-Phillips is from personifying these greats, you can rely on her to put her heart and soul into each and every song. This is a socko holiday show, onstage through Sunday, December 21.
The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz, Crossroads Theater , 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100. To December 21. $30 to $45.