By: Jun. 12, 2009

Blues in the Night is a delightful compilation of material that celebrates the many styles associated with the music known as the blues. As conceived by Sheldon Epps, this musical follows three women and a saloon singer as they recall memories from their past in song form. The Black Rep's current production showcases four superb vocalists who bring their own unique talents to the work, creating a marvelous and uplifting experience, filled with enough genuine warmth and good humor, that it may well redefine how you feel about the blues.

Set in the late 1930's in a rundown hotel, Blues in the Night follows the lonely lives of four people who have earned the right to sing the blues. A few lines of dialog establish the basic characters present, but they're only referred to as: "The Man", "The Lady", "The Girl" and "The Woman". It really doesn't matter since the treasure trove of classic music is really the star of this show. Although the selections are arranged to reveal specific character traits and experiences, the only common narrative thread concerns the fact that each of them is searching for love, while dealing with heartache.

Anita Jackson is a powerful presence as "The Lady", an aging performer biding her time while waiting for her next engagement. The depth of emotion she reveals in each song is phenomenal, and if it weren't for her equally gifted co-stars, she'd steal the show with her sexy and funny renditions of "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" and "Kitchen Man". But, it's Bessie Smith's "Wasted Life's Blues" that really finds her in her element, wringing every bit of feeling possible from Smith's touching lyrics.

As "The Woman", Willena Vaughn is exceptional, bringing plenty of sass and attitude to each of the songs. "Stompin' at the Savoy" is given a terrific run through, and it's especially nice to actually hear the words to a tune I'd only heard as a swinging instrumental. Vaughn's take on the boozing and bruising heartbreak of "Lush Life", and her frisky and comic musings on "Rough and Ready Man", show off her broad range.

Leah Stewart is "The Girl", and though she doesn't possess the raw power and seasoned voice of her fellow actors, she provides a sweet alternative and a very nice contrast. The least traveled and the most optimistic of the group, she's represented by some of the more challenging melodies like "Willow Weep for Me" and "Taking a Chance on Love". Later, as her character gets a little tipsy, Stewart delivers a revealing version of Bessie Smith's "Reckless Blues".

J. Samuel Davis is his usual ingratiating and charming self as The Man, but if I have any complaint with this show, it's the fact that he's handed the least amount of materiaL. Davis shines during "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So", with his smooth dance moves adding some flash to the proceedings. He's also quite good on "Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues", which is repeated at the end with the entire cast.

Together, the group produces a sparkling sound filled with terrific three-part and four-part harmonies. The opener, "Blue Blues", the familiar "Blues in the Night" and "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out" are all wonderfully realized by the company. The clever juxtaposition of "When a Woman Loves a Man" with "Am I Blue" provides a melodious highlight.

Director Ron Himes does solid work bringing this production to life; and though there may not be a lot of movement or action present, it's never dull, with the focus squarely on the singers and this engaging collection of songs. Musical director Charles Creath contributes on piano and leads a strong ensemble that includes: Theodore Harden on bass, Joshua Williams on trumpet and Molden Picket on percussion. Regina Garcia's lovely scenic design neatly captures the feel of a rundown hotel, and each occupant's room reflects their individual personality. Reggie Ray's costumes also work to define each role in colorful fashion. Kathy Perkins lighting is serviceable, but some of the cues were noticeably late in execution.

The Black Rep's splendid presentation of Blues in the Night closes their "Season of the Woman" in style. The only thing missing was a packed house at the Grandel Theatre, which this production most certainly deserves. Make an effort to catch this wonderful show playing now through June 28, 2009, and you won't be disappointed.