Saturday, April 24, 2004

Play: Blues, Brothers

It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues By Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman, directed by Randal Myler, Seattle Rep until 8 May.

Its Saturday afternoon and my ears are still ringing from a righteous blues program. The Rep closes its season with a celebration of the blues that shines like a steel guitar. An incredibly talented ensemble that delivers a history of the music, forged of African rhythms and American slavery. Blues streaks across the firmament, throwing off sparks for gospel, country, and jazz from its rural roots. That's Act I. Act II is when the Blues hits uptown, makes it to Chicago and the Grand Old Opry and torch songs. It takes a strong nod to bitter reality beneath the music with "Strange Fruit" (a banned song about lynching), then closes on a upswing with "Let the Good Times Roll" which brought the crowd to its feet for an ovation.

For me, the urban Act II engaged me more and (heaven forbid) made me miss the windy city. And in Act I, "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" a traditional Appalachian song showing the connection between the early Blue and the rural white music, caught me in the throat, and it was warbled beautifully by Tamra Hayden.

Top to bottom, the ensemble was fantastic, and in addition to Ms. Hayden, consisted of "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Dan Wheetman (both Bevel and Wheetman wrote the original) Kingsley Leggs, Chic Street Man, the formidable Jewel Tomkins, and the sensuous Debra Laws. Each had a chance to dazzle, and dazzle they did - both men and women were smooth and sultry. Most of their bios show that they've been involved with earlier versions of the show, and it feels like you've been invited into their home - they are comfortable with the material, and have no problem with showing it off.

Indeed, the singers upstage the set. When I first walked into the theatre, I saw two huge projection screens over the back, and gritted my teeth for slide show presentations. Yeah, they are there, but are completely overwhelmed by the power and talent of the ensemble. The photos underscore, but do not dominate, the music.

In particular, this earthy, human, solid visit with the American blues is amazing, especially compared with the cyber-borged access to music at the EMP across the Seattle Center (Look in the old files for "I Experience Music"). Museum peices and music excerpts are good enough for a research level, food for the eyes and brain. This is live and thriving and feeds the ears and the heart instead. If you get a chance, go see it.

More later,