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Bessie Smith earned the right to sing the blues. Her first husband died soon after the wedding; the second one cheated on her regularly, and kidnapped their adopted son and placed him in a foster home. Bessie herself died in an auto accident, but not before making more than 50 of the greatest recordings of all time. Her life was filled with the lust, pleasure, and pain found in the songs she sang so brilliantly.
Bessie was the perfect creator for the music; Roz Ryan, Vivian Reed, and Leilani Jones are its ideal heiresses. This they prove with stunning force in Blues in the Night, the first main-stage production of the season at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Along with Broadway veteran Alan Weeks, and under the guidance of Sheldon Epps - who conceived, staged, and directed this Tony Award-nominated musical - these accomplished singers/actresses give their blues perfect pitch and passion. If nothing else, it's thrilling to see such a collection of talent on one stage.
Blues in the Night is a musical celebration more than it is a musical, and audiences looking for a traditional story with songs ought to look elsewhere. On the other hand, anyone acquainted with the blues will enjoy a walk down memory lane accompanied by superb renditions of "I've Got a Date with a Dream," "Taking a Chance on Love," and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Those who aren't familiar with the musical form couldn't ask for a better introduction. Although Blues has no plot, it does have a theme, and the action never drags.
The melodies and lyrics of greats such as Duke Ellington, Alberta Hunter, Benny Goodman, Johnny Mercer, and Bessie Smith herself form the basis of the show. Their songs, interrupted by scant dialogue, detail the lives of three women and a man who live in a run-down Chicago hotel in the Thirties. There is The Lady from the Road (Roz Ryan), a once-successful vaudevillian who dreams of making her big comeback. The Woman of the World (Vivian Reed) lived the champagne-filled high life until a broken heart led her to cheap accommodations and cheaper wine. The Girl with a Date (Leilani Jones) has come to the city to mend a broken heart, but is about to get dumped again. These women, says The Lady, "are right on the edge," brought here because of love for the wrong man. And it's blues time.
The Man in the Saloon (Alan Weeks) is a musical narrator who observes the women's soul-aches (and hopes to snag one of them for himself), and remarks through song that wild women don't get the blues, that love means less to a man than to a woman. He doesn't suffer, his nimble persona can happily sing "I'm Just A Lucky So-and-So." Epps, who revised the show over a ten-year period, is wise enough to alternate styles and moods, with heart-wrenching ballads followed by swinging numbers. He might have shown off his blues better if there had been a plot and a stronger justification for some of his characters (The Man being the most obvious example), but all the same he has created a strong evening of musical entertainment, and the singers are so connected to the lyrics that they are able to provide the drama.
Roz Ryan is Bessie Smith reborn; she even wears Bessie's trademark wild dresses and crazy hats. In numbers such as "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues," she sings the blues not from her toes but from her soul. The sound is so deep and rich that it seems to come up through the boards of the stage. She thunders, she wails, she whispers in agony, and it's a shame there isn't a recording for sale of her "Lover Man" and "Wasted Life Blues." When Ryan talks to the audience, she shows off the celebrated comic timing that made her famous during five television seasons on Amen.
That Vivian Reed was the star of Broadway's Bubblin' Brown Sugar and won a Tony for Grind comes as no surprise. While her voice is not as sturdy as Ryan's, it is no less pleasing, and she's able to aim it like a weapon. Leilani Jones, reprising the role she played in a 1988 off-Broadway revival, possesses a comfortable voice, well suited to the sweet innocent. Although she sings fewer showstoppers, she blends beautifully with the others and more than does justice to "Reckless Blues." Alan Weeks isn't helped by the arrangements in the first act. He makes use of an annoying vibrato that disappears after intermission, when his vocals improve. Throughout the show Weeks, who's danced on Broadway in Funny Girl, Sophisticated Ladies, Ain't Misbehavin' and Tap Dance Kid, shows off some subtle but fancy footwook.
The staging tends to be a bit awkward, and several times the ladies cross the stage in painfully contrived slow motion. But their lithe movements compensate, just as the vocals are able to obscure a wimpy band. The set by Douglas D. Smith is the right blend of shaded lamps, velveteen sofas, and the jagged windows of lonely urban nights; the lighting, from purple haze to bright amber, complements both set and songs.
By the end, all three women are vowing they'll find happiness again, but still maintain a firm hold on their sorrow. They've been hurt in the past and no doubt will be hurt again. "A man," sings Roz Ryan in the title song, "is a two-faced, a worrisome thing who leads you to sing the blues in the night." And when she declares to the audience, "These are the blues," she's absolutely right. Don't miss the chance to hear them at their best.
BLUES IN THE NIGHT
Conceived, staged, and directed by Sheldon Epps; with Roz Ryan, Vivian Reed, Leilani Jones, and Alan Weeks. At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, through November 17. Performances Tuesday - Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (additional matinees Thursday, November 7 and Saturday, November 16). Tickets cost $24 to $35; call 442-4000 for more information.
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