BWW Review: THE DEVIL'S MUSIC: THE LIFE AND BLUES OF BESSIE SMITH Brings on January Thaw
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
Written by Angelo Parra; Concept, Musical Staging & Direction by Joe Brancato; Musical Direction & Arrangement by Miche Braden; Scenic Designer, James J. Fenton; Costume Designer, Patricia E. Doherty; Lighting Designer, Todd Wren; Stage Manager, Bree Sherry; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crew
Performances through February 2 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
The prolonged January thaw just may last into early February as long as Miche Braden and the boys in her band are playing the blues of Bessie Smith onstage at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. The blues may be cool, but Braden and the music are hot and will get your heart pumping in this lively production of playwright Angelo Parra's The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. A Memphis "buffet flat" in 1937, richly rendered by Scenic Designer James J. Fenton, is the perfect backdrop for Bessie to strut her stuff, sing her signature songs, and tell the story of her tumultuous life.
Braden has a voice and presence as large as Smith's and she'll wow you and break your heart with a powerful performance that brings the singer to life. Even if you don't know much about Bessie Smith, you'll walk out of the show feeling as though you've just spent the evening in her company. The actress is joined by three outstanding musicians who are good-natured foils for Bessie's banter, but take a back seat to no one in the talent department. The trio of Jim Hankins on bass, Aaron Graves on piano, and Anthony E. Nelson, Jr. on saxophone is a vital piece of the essence of The Devil's Music. Hankins also has a small speaking role (Pickle) and sets the scene at the beginning of the show, making us aware that this is Bessie's final performance.
Nicknamed "The Empress of the Blues," Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, serving as an influence on later songstresses like Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. One of seven children whose parents died when she was nine years old, Bessie was raised by an older sister and became a street performer to help support the family, eventually going on tour as a dancer. One of the lighthearted segments of The Devil's Music occurs when she is relating this story and cheekily shows off her terpsichorean talents to silence the good-natured ribbing from the band.
Reflecting the times in general and Bessie's road in particular, the show doesn't gloss over the racism she faced and the alcoholism that afflicted her. However, she stands up to the former and embraces the latter, playing down the effects that both had on her. She tells a sad story and then erupts in song, shooing away her blues by the sheer power and emotion of her voice. The most poignant moment occurs when Bessie, after defending herself to a faceless judge in a custody hearing for her son, stands under a spotlight on a darkened stage and plaintively wails "I Ain't Got Nobody." Parra does an admirable job of displaying the contrast between the highs and lows of Smith's life, from a contract with Columbia Records to her troubles with men and the resulting heartache.
Braden connects with the audience from the moment she enters, ignoring the fourth wall as if we are the other partygoers in the private establishment. She feeds off of the applause, cajoling us for more if the noise level doesn't suit her, and invites us to sing along on a song about the devil. Bawdy and sassy, she playfully interacts with the band, the highlight being a sensuous "dance"/duet with Nelson and his horn on "St. Louis Blues," the theme from the movie of the same name (Smith's one film appearance). Underlying the repartee, there is genuine affection among them, and Pickle tries to protect Bessie from her own worst impulses. She continually drinks from a tumbler or a flask and, as the evening progresses, Bessie's insecurities and fears rise to the surface. Her mood darkens as she belts out her final tune, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is the love child of a collaboration among Parra, Director Joe Brancato (who is also responsible for the concept and musical staging), and Braden. In addition to starring in the show, musical direction and arrangements are also credited to the actress. It premiered in 2000 at Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, New York, and ran for a year Off-Broadway at the St. Luke's Theatre (June 2011 - June 2012), earning nominations for the production and Braden for Lucille Lortel Awards. The staging at Merrimack Rep is enhanced by Todd Wren's warm lighting design and evocative costume design by Patricia E. Doherty. However, I think that Miche Braden, channeling the iconic chanteuse, could stand on a bare stage with only a ghost light by her side and the two women would bring the house down. Don't miss this compelling, entertaining night at the theater or you'll be singing the blues.
(For more information about Bessie Smith or the show, download the play guide at www.mrt.org)