BWW Review: BLUES IN THE NIGHT, a Spectacular Showcase for Three Incredible Women
Somewhere in a cheap hotel in Chicago, circa late 1930s, three women are singing the blues. Two have been around the block and seen it all. One is woefully wise beyond her years. All have been burned by the flames of desire and lovers who have done them wrong.
This is the set-up for BLUES IN THE NIGHT, the musical revue conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps, playing through May 20th in the Lovelace Studio Theater at The Wallis. Epps first directed it in 1980 at Playhouse 46 in New York where it was intended to be a late-night companion piece to a jazz play the theatre was producing. A brief run on Broadway followed in 1982, which scored it a Tony nomination for Best Musical.
Gregory Hines originally assisted with the choreography and for the Los Angeles production it is Jeffrey Polk who adds his unique flair to Epps' sleek staging. It isn't a dancy show but the two have found a simple yet extremely effective way of physically communicating humor and innuendo. And because Epps also starts the show quietly, it leaves the piece room to grow, both in volume and emotional intensity.
With no dialogue or plot to speak of, the show rests on the singers' ability to sell a song. Lord know the blues ain't easy. You need life experience and a voice that can deliver a universe of pain, passion, and pride in a single note. If you don't feel it, you can't sing it, and these three leading ladies have got the goods.
Each embodies a particular type. Yvette Cason is the aging Lady from the Road, a performer living on memories stashed in her steamer trunk along with old show costumes. She's loaded with personality and is as adept at comedy ("Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Kitchen Man" will have you shaking your head) as she is in bringing out the sorrow in a song like Bessie Smith's devastating "Wasted Life Blues." Best single musical moment of the night, pianist Lanny Hartley's one chord transition in "Lover Man" that spins the song from wistful longing to sultry despair, which Cason uses to splinter her heart across the floor of her tiny room.
Paulette Ivory's stylish Woman of the World is a looker whose appetite for romance and liquor has left her constantly disappointed. She has a luscious, creamy voice, and she can bend a note and pull it back from the air like the sound is bridging worlds. The muted trumpet and upright bass intro to "Stompin At The Savoy" tells you everything you need to know about her character in only two bars. Her "Lush Life" is a rich dish served elegantly steamy and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" is a vulnerable acknowledgment of the illusory life she's created that could be a whole musical by itself.
Bryce Charles is the sweet, sad-eyed Girl with the Date, too young to already be so misused by love. She's two parts sunshine, one part baby doll, with a sparkling voice that is delicate one moment and sassy the next. She's young but her career will be one to watch.
When the three of them sing in harmony, it is divine. They're backed by Hartley's 6-piece jazz combo (Kevin O'Neal on bass, Randall Willis and Louis Van Taylor on reeds, Fernando Pullum on trumpet, Lance Lee on percussion, and Hartley on piano). Act Two opens with the group jamming and soloing on "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues," a theme that runs throughout the show. Music direction by Abdul Hamid Royal unites all musical elements - voice, instruments, tone, character, and emotion - to create one of the most luxurious musical experiences on a stage in Los Angeles. It may be the blues but there is as much joy, fun, and fortitude in BLUES IN THE NIGHT as there is suffering.
Attractive period costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods flatter each woman's assets. If they never sang a word you'd know exactly who each one was by the garments she wears - a sensual satin peignoir for Ivory, a young girl's day dress for Charles, and an endless array of theatrical accents for Cason to charm the audience with.
The cast also includes one man (Chester Gregory) who represents a tunnel-visioned male perspective on the trio's love troubles, but he is negligible. Though he has a few smooth moves, this show belongs to the ladies.
Jared A. Sayeg floods the stage with jewel-toned lighting to intensify the emotional punch of each character's inner life. John Iacovelli creates the "Four Walls (And One Dirty Window) Blues" setting as three distinct rooms fitting each woman's present circumstances connected by a central "memory" world they step into to connect with the audience or to wander back into a dream. Since music is the lifeblood of the show, the band is always visible behind the women, as if to call them home.
BLUES IN THE NIGHT is a decadently rich musical experience built on some of the best early jazz and blues standards you'll ever hear. Guaranteed to satisfy a lover of great songs, in my book, it's two hours of musical heaven.
Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho