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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

scorned

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

vocalized

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

transforms

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

Nashville

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

gloriously

funky version of "Good Night Irene." But it’s that long,

fascinating

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,

harmonica,

banjo, fiddle, and guitar. This is not to exclude the virtuosity

displayed

by cast members who can make music simply by blowing into a jug,

banging

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

English

(who were brought to work alongside blacks). In Act I the cast is

seated in a row and accompanies their song with basic, simple

instruments.

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"

(1914).

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 —

"I’m

Gonna Do What The Spirit Say" and "I Know I’ve Been

Changed"

— 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

Theater

Company in 1995. Engagements followed in Cleveland, Washington, D.C.,

and San Diego. With more stops scheduled, including the Alabama

Shakespeare

Festival, the show’s final destination might well be Broadway. After

all, this is an ongoing story.

— Simon Saltzman

It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, Crossroads Theater,

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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