There's a reason the women trailblazers in the early decades of 20th century popular music make for good stories for stage and film, and it has to do with the huge obstacles they faced; the biggest being that they were women in what was considered a man's world. Their fight to have their voices heard and receive the compensation and recognition they deserved is inspiring. A good many of their stories, from Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday to Patsy Cline to Dinah Washington, also come with those those characters that we love in a celebrity rags-to-riches thread: Demons.
The phrase "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" is around for a reason.
Unlike those aforementioned women, it's surprising there hasn't been a major musical about one of the ballsiest blues/R&B/rock women in music, Etta James. Maybe that will change considering that the legend died this year, in January 2012, and therefore isn't able to speak out against any choice of actress who would play her (she famously decried the choice of Beyoncé in the 2008 film Cadillac Records).
When the Etta bio-pic happens, though, I'll throw Sheran Goodspeed Keyton's name in the ring. She doesn't look or sound exactly like the raspy-voiced blues-rocker, but in the show Simply Etta, opening DVA Productions' 2012-'13 season, she conjures her spirit.
Plus, add Keyton's voice—which effortlessly bounces from heart-melting to chillbump-inducing to something that makes audience members resemble the man in those 1980s Maxell advertisements—to anything and it's worth your money.
Simply Etta is written by Dallas playwright Dianne Tucker, and an early version of this show debuted in 2011 at the writer's now-defunct Deep Ellum club Tucker's Blues. This time it has been fleshed out a little more, and Ed Smith, former artistic director of Jubilee Theatre, takes the reins. Longtime Jubileer Joe Rogers is on the piano, playing accompanist Johan.
Keyton doesn't just sing the songs, she feels them. Deeply. The segues between such tunes as "Roll With Me, Henry," "Damn Your Eyes" and, of course, "At Last," are stories from Etta's career. Smartly, those tales aren't chronological. She time-jumps between stories about how gay men created her image by dyeing her hair blonde; being discovered; meeting the man she was told was her father, Minnesota Fats; and performing with the Rolling Stones. She name-drops a bunch of other cats, too, including Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington. The latter comes with a story that hysterically leads to Etta's aforementioned beef against Ms. Knowles, who performed "At Last" and caused James' claws to come out.
We know Keyton can sing her butt off, and while she may not delve as deep into the character as she did years ago as Bessie Smith at Jubilee, the spirit is all there. She's engaging, charismatic and a trouper with ad-libbing. At the performance I attended, she called out one man in the audience who wasn't clapping, and when he had a funny retort, that became a running gag throughout the show.
During the Minnesota Fats segment, she returns to the chorus of the song "Motherless Child." Of all the versions of that song I've heard, I'd gladly buy Keyton's. It brought tears to everyone's, including the performer's, eyes.
Damn, those things.
Of course Etta James' songbook is too large to fit in one show, but there were some surprising omissions. I'd kill to hear Keyton do "St. Louis Blues," a song that was covered by all the blues greats, but perhaps best by James. And then there's this famous rocker:
What you want is to catch Simply Etta in its final weekend.