BWW Review: BLUES IN THE NIGHT Smolders at Creative Cauldron
Creative Cauldron's production of BLUES IN THE NIGHT, directed by Matt Conner, spotlights a strong four-person cast that delivers 26 songs by Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and other early jazz legends. Backed by a live band led by Walter "Bobby" McCoy and surrounded with a sultry set, these singers enthrall.
BLUES IN THE NIGHT, a musical revue set in a hotel in 1938 Chicago, was conceived by Sheldon Epps and nominated for a Tony Award in 1983. The wafer-thin plot is so streamlined that it's practically nonexistent: three women are in love with the same no-good man, and they all sing about it in a steamy music venue. The broad concept is simply an excuse to hear first-rate performers do their best with truly excellent songs, but it's easy to feel unfulfilled when almost all of the storytelling is strung together by music, with no real dialogue in between. This leanness and efficiency turns out to be a paradoxical blessing in disguise, because in this case, we'd rather hear the talented cast sing the whole dense setlist than fill precious time with the spoken word.
The musical is female-focused, featuring vignettes of heartbreak and hard times. The trio of females includes the richly authentic Iyona Blake (The Lady), the sultry Raquel Gregory-Jennings (The Girl), and the sharp, sensual Katie McManus (The Woman). They're dressed to kill, dripping with vintage glamour (costume designer Margie Jervis).
Blake is instantly engrossing and seems to have inhabited this hotel, appropriately bathed in blue light (lighting designer Lynn Joslin), for as long as she's been around. A character that could have easily slid into caricature becomes real in Blake's hands, as doles out sassy life advice that sounds like it could only come from someone who's seen it all. Her rendition of "Kitchen Man" is full of delightful innuendo, but her best moment is the downbeat "Wasted Life Blues", when the lights go down completely. Her expressive vocals cover every shade of sadness.
McManus, too, is genuine and entertaining. Her warm, soulful vocals evoke the lovely nostalgia of "Stompin' at the Savoy", and she switches moods with finesse, later interacting with a game crowd in the bawdy "Rough and Ready Man".
Gregory-Jennings looks and sounds the part of an ingenue who's about to be burned by love ("Taking a Chance on Love"). However, especially compared to the projection of Blake and McManus, her voice seems delicate and almost weak. This is almost certainly not due to a lack of vocal prowess; when she's elevated on the platform set up at the front of the stage, she sounds divine. But the acoustics, or perhaps the fact that the audience surrounds the space on three sides, means that when the blocking isn't just so, chunks of the performance are fuzzy.
Not to be forgotten is The Man, played with a hefty dose of humor by Clifton Walker III. Though plot-wise, he's almost a prop, Walker uses his smooth voice and exaggerated movements to engage with the women in such numbers as "It Makes My Love Come Down", in which he employs a conducting baton to suggestive effect. He's a charming antagonist who almost steals the show, lamenting that "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues", as if he would know.
When the three women rise from their separate tables and sing together in thrilling harmony, as in the opener "Blue Blues", the funny "Take It Right Back", and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out", it's downright empowering. Subtle choreography by Stephen Gregory Smith unites the three in a way that feels like it's each of them, separately and together, against the world. Every woman's got the blues, and she has the right to sing them.
Running time: approximately 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
BLUES IN THE NIGHT runs through March 5th, 2017, at Creative Cauldron at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 South Maple Avenue, Falls Church, VA 22046. Tickets can be purchased at www.creativecauldron.org or by calling 703-436-9948.
Photo: Cast of BLUES IN THE NIGHT; photo courtesy of Keith Waters, Kx Photography.