May 8, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman
"Blues in the Night," The Wallis, Beverly Hills, April 27-May 27, 2018
In Brief: Four confident singers, a tight five-piece band, two dozen appealing tunes, slick sets and lighting. For sheer entertainment, you can’t do better than this soulful, sometimes swinging celebration of the blues.
The blues are many things. It’s not easy to pin them down. We usually think of them as a mournful lament about lost, one-sided, or abusive love. But they can be up-tempo, comic, sassy, or deliciously raunchy, too.
They have been interpreted by a wide range of musicians: humble small-town harmonica and guitar players, Kansas City and Harlem hot jazz groups, 1920’s blues queens, smooth big-band crooners, pop entertainers, folk singers, and rock and rollers.
Bryce Charles and Paulette Ivory in "Blues in the Night" (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)
In the end, we don’t care about tempo, musical structure, geography, or other scholarly labels. We know the blues when we hear it and, especially, when we feel it.
Sheldon Epps, the author and director of Blues in the Night, has taken a similarly unconstrained approach in fashioning a gem of a musical revue that’s part classic blues from the 1910s and ‘20s and part blues-influenced Tin Pan Alley standards written in the 1930s.
He has curated a selection of popular and little known compositions that includes those made famous by the blues queens Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, familiar jazz numbers (Benny Goodman’s undulating Savoy and Billy Strayhorn’s devastating Lush Life), and bouncy pop tunes (Vernon Duke’s Taking a Chance on Love).
Epps has imagined the slimmest of plots to give the show something of a dramatic through-line about three women, at different life crossroads, living in a cheap Chicago hotel.
For sheer entertainment, you can’t do better than this soulful, sometimes swinging celebration of the blues
The Lady from the Road (a rousing, tell-it-like-it-is Yvette Cason) once performed on the Chitlin Circuit (theaters that were safe for black entertainers during the era of racial segregation). She’s got her memories, trunk of old costumes, and the fading hope that she’ll get one more booking.
Cason’s got a big, big voice and a dynamite way with a song. She is an unassailable presence, terrific every time she steps on stage, none more so than on Andy Razaf’s Kitchen Man, with its many bawdy, crowd-tickling double entendres.
The Girl with the Date (a fresh-faced Bryce Charles) is just starting out in life. The youthful – just beginning her own career – ingenue brings a lovely, wistful quality to the ballad Willow Weep for Me and offers a playful, winning version of Taking a Chance on Love. On this last, Charles’ lighter vocal style recalled the very young Ethel Waters who introduced the pop standard in the 1920s.
Paulette Ivory plays the disillusioned Woman of the World. She’s alone, past her prime, and drinks too much. Ivory’s mezzo-soprano is sumptuous and expressive (though not always very bluesy). Nonetheless, she scored with a haunting version of Lush Life.
A soulful, show-stopping Yvette Cason in "Blues in the Night" (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)
Epps has incorporated a lone male into the proceedings. While the majority of songs and dramatic narrative – such as it is – belong to the three women, The Man in the Saloon (a slick Chester Gregory) has a couple of solos and occasionally harmonizes with the three women, most notably on the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer anthem Blues in the Night.
While of these gifted performers would impress even on a bare stage, here their efforts are enriched by John Iacovelli’s attractive production design and Jared A. Sayeg’s lush, dramatic lighting throughout. The Wallis management wisely decided to mount the revue in their Lovelace Theatre, the smaller of the two venues at the performing arts center. That serves the show’s intimate nature well and further adds to the rewards to be savored.
This is a welcome revival of a show first seen on Broadway and in London in the 1980s. It’s is a night of great blues and sensational music making that will leave you feeling not melancholy at all, but refreshed, elated, and glad to be alive.
And, that, too, is the blues.
“Blues in the Night,” The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 746-4000