Fort Worth — Blues in the Night at Jubilee Theatre hits its best notes at its lowest moments, when desire and hope have packed a suitcase and some guy’s just slammed the door—probably on the day the rent is due. The song asks: “Am I Blue?” You bet. And lucky for Jubilee’s audience, because we get to hear the pure distillation of those awful moments into a uniquely American form of poetry: the rubbed raw, down deep, heart-of-a-woman blues song, played in the key of Love Gone Wrong.
There’s a Man (Jamall Houston) lurking in the wings, but onstage it’s the women who rule the night. Three strong personalities (Natalie King, Cherish Robinson and Chelsea Bridgman) play a Lady from the Road, a Woman of the World, and a Girl with a Date—each at a particular point in life, expressing themselves in songs made famous by Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Ethel Waters and other blues madonnas of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.
And every song is about love—sought, savored, lost—and how to survive it.
Sheldon Epps’ pastiche of a show (Jubilee produced it first in 2010) toured the country in the 1980s and was nominated for both Tony and Olivier awards. Michael Serrecchia directs this production with a lively sense of blues history and style (and comedy, too), and has put together some fine voices—most of them new to the Jubilee stage.
Now mind you, it’s not all one long moan. There’s an arc to the show that includes some bright and brassy moments, notably a belting, resonant King as The Lady, sizzling and funny in a series of hip-twitching Bessie Smith songs—“Take Me For a Buggy Ride,” “Kitchen Man”—that spell out the delights of S-E-X…without ever saying the word. (I, for one, will never hear the word “succotash” in the same way again.) King’s powerhouse voice is a delight, though she at times loses some of the lyrics as she adds volume.
And there’s hope to be found in songs like Ethel Waters’ 1940 Cabin in the Sky hit “Taking a Chance on Love”—wistful yet swinging in Bridgman’s sweet rendition. Bridgman’s lighter voice is sometimes overpowered, but her thoughtful character work stands up in song after song, including her mournful “Willow Weep for Me” and an edge-of-the-cliff “Reckless Blues.” Robinson, her voice like a glass of iced lemonade, gives us an elegant, crystal-clear “Stomping at the Savoy” and harmonizes beautifully with Houston on a mash-up of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Duke Ellington’s “Lucky So and So.” And then we find she can belt one too, with a shake-the-rafters take on Alberta Hunter’s “Rough and Ready Man.”
Ensemble songs are bright spots as well. Among the show’s best are the surprisingly feminist ‘20s song “Wild Women Don’t Have No Blues” and a low and lovely quartet version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic “Blues in the Night.”
My mama done told me
When I was in pigtails
My mama done told me
A man’s gonna sweet-talk
And give you the big eyes
But when the sweet-talkin’s done….
A man is a two-face
A worrisome thing who’ll leave you to sing the blues
In the night.
Musical director Michael Childs has a lively trio of musicians playing above the stage—most notably pianist Emmanuel Smith, whose rippling echoes of the sung notes in “Savoy” and “Lush Life” will make you sigh. Costume and set designer Amy Poe has given some thought to each of these women and what they might wear (the show is set in a shabby Chicago hotel of the 1930s), from The Lady’s long-ago vaudeville costumes to The Woman’s high-fashion gowns and The Girl’s fluffy peignoir and satin slip. (Raise your hand if you don’t know what a peignoir is.)
For a show with no spoken plot line at all, Blues does a more than decent job of delineating its three ladies, but whether it’s the script or the interpretation, the character of The Man seems a bit puzzling. Houston is playful, amusing, and well up to the “comic relief” side of the character: the ladies let him hang around, have fun mocking him, and aren’t afraid to shoo him out the door. But…is that all he’s supposed to be? This might have been a stronger show with more push and pull—if The Man were crafted as a more forceful and opinionated “stand-in” for the guys who didn’t stick around.
As it is, though, Blues in the Night does the job, giving us a tuneful time and a (virtual) chance to weep and wail right along with the ladies onstage. These women may be down, but they’re not out—and as the song says, we’ve all “Got a Right to Sing the Blues” any time we want.
Life is tough—and a great song is a wonderful way to stand up to it.