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Review: `Nothin’ But the Blues’
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
November 25, 1998. All rights reserved.
I won’t stand it because you’re runnin’ around,"
sings fired-up Eloise Laws, in the role of the proverbial woman
in "It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues," Crossroads Theater’s
new musical saga of the African-American experience that opened last
week and plays through January 3. The evocative song that prompts
Laws’ lyric is, "I Put A Spell On You." And it prompted more
than one woman in opening-night audience to shout "Amen."
Then, when an undulating Gregory Porter hisses, "I rules my own
den, baby" in the provocative "Crawlin’ King Snake," some
audible swooners fell half way out of their seats. If there is
approval for Lita Gaithers’ sardonic delivery of the lyric "Momma,
he’s done your daughter mean," it’s because the tantalizing song,
"Please Don’t Stop Him," tells its earthy truths with such
conviction. But I doubt that there was any woman in the theater who
didn’t fall under the spell of Mojo-possessed Ron Taylor as he sang,
"I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man." No doubt about it, men and
women are having their say and their way with the blues.
With emotions, passion, and musical ability to spare, four men and
three women take their audience on a compelling journey from the
African continent to the Mississippi Delta and on to the inner city
nightclubs of Chicago. Written with earnestness by Charles Bevel, Lita
Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor, and Dan Wheetman, and directed
with an instinct for taste, pace, and variety by Myler, "It Ain’t
Nothin’ But the Blues" is a beautifully performed and presented
original show without a lot of overcooked theatricality.
You say you don’t recognize all these songs? Well they are part of
the great and yet comparatively obscure (to me) "blues" canon.
Sung during the early part of the 20th century by blacks already
generations removed from bondage and slavery, these songs were
propelled out of current sorrows. Loosely identified as "the
blues," this musical form could only be heard in saloons, at the
dock and railroad yards, and even in a chain gang. But whether or not
the music or words are
familiar to you, the 46 blues songs featured in this extraordinary
show are terrific.
Unfaithful lovers, poverty, deprivation, the wages of sin, substance
abuse, illness, pain, grief, and even mother-in-law trouble, with
an occasional detour into self-pity, are the usual subjects for the
"blues." But look within the story of the best of the blues
and you will find there a wit, an irony, and an attitude that
the apparent melancholy or depression into a wry and often amusing
confrontation. And you can look to the cast of "It Ain’t Nothin’
But the Blues" to bring it all to you. Laughter fills the theater
when Laws tells us she’s "a brand new woman," in the sardonic,
"Someone Else is Steppin’ In."
Blues is the art of confronting hard times that influenced not only
ragtime and jazz, but also white country and mountain music from
to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Step aside Peggy Lee and Patsy Kline,
as Carter Calvert fairly sizzles through the classics, "Fever"
and "Walkin’ After Midnight." We are told the blues reached
their peak on the South Side of Chicago, as demonstrated by Messers
"Mississippi" Charles Bevel and Dan Wheetman in their
funky version of "Good Night Irene." But it’s that long,
road to Chicago that makes up the journey in this musical chronology.
At the start of the show, we are introduced to the people who came
in chains to America with the African chants "Niwah Wechi"
and "Odun de." The transformation to individual laments and
blues songs are augmented in Act I with some mean tambourine,
banjo, fiddle, and guitar. This is not to exclude the virtuosity
by cast members who can make music simply by blowing into a jug,
a pair of spoons, or rubbing a washboard.
Look above the performers of "It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues"
to see a stunning series of photos projected on two screens. These
depict life for the blacks and the indentured Scots, Irish, and
(who were brought to work alongside blacks). In Act I the cast is
seated in a row and accompanies their song with basic, simple
In Act II, a terrific six-member band backs up the cast.
Easily characterized by its slurred and broken tones and its use of
syncopation, the blues style pays tribute — as does jazz, ragtime,
bop, soul, and disco — to a specific social climate. W.C. Handy,
recognized as the father of the blues, is celebrated with Gaithers’
unhurried and sensitive rendition his "St. Louis Blues"
A rich legacy of early blues, characterized as down-home music, is
heard in Act I. These include "Dangerous Blues" and "Black
Woman." Two old Gospel hand-clappers sung a cappella —
Gonna Do What The Spirit Say" and "I Know I’ve Been
— are roof-raising testimonials.
The show’s director, Randall Myler, is to be commended for keeping
the integrity of the music and its performers at the fore. No one
is a star here, but all are sensationally featured. Robin Sanford
Roberts’ simple but artful set design, Don Darnutzer’s lighting, and
Dione H. Lebhar’s costumes reflect commendable restraint.
With a girth that is as awesome as his delivery, Taylor, early in
the show, tells us that he’s "been raised on collard greens and
black eyed peas." By the end it is plain that it is raising Cain
that is Taylor’s forte, as he demonstrates with the entire company
in the show’s jubilant, if hardly blue, finale, "Let The Good
Times Roll." It is likely to bring you to your feet cheering.
Produced by Crossroads in association with the San Diego Repertory
Theater and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, this show has already
enjoyed a lengthy warm-up tour beginning with the Denver Center
Company in 1995. Engagements followed in Cleveland, Washington, D.C.,
and San Diego. With more stops scheduled, including the Alabama
Festival, the show’s final destination might well be Broadway. After
all, this is an ongoing story.
— Simon Saltzman
7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. A musical saga of
the African-American experience. $27.50 to $35. Through January 3.
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