The warm intimacy of Queensbury Theatre, one of Houston's best stage spaces, gets lowdown and dirty for It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, a 1999 Tony Award nominee for Best Musical. The revue might be slight, skipping through black music history, but a more sassy show would be hard to find.
In more or less chronological order, Blues presents 38 numbers, all delivered by an octet of exceptional musical performers: Manny Berry, Lady Grace O. Dada, Michelle Davis, Mark Frazier, Darry Hearon, Cheyenne James, Rodrick Randall, Roenia Thompson. Each artist is special and comes with built-in stage presence, but put them together and it's like a stage full of the Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Bojangles Robinson, Billie Holiday. To watch them connect with each other is a joy. They give the show snap, charm and sexy energy.
But there's a token in this group: Cheyenne James. A wonderful stylist in a knockout red velvet dress, she wrings every ounce of innuendo out of “Now I'm Gonna Be Bad,” like Mae West or Sophie Tucker. But she seems out of place in this black panorama. She's given a questionable intro that links her ancestry to English indentured slaves and something about “we knew troubles, too.” Well, maybe, but after seven years' forced service, they were freed. James has fiery sparkle and a winning personality, but her presence is disquieting. White jazz singers are numerous; white blues singers are an anomaly. This isn't white music. If you overlook this color-blind casting, the revue has multitudes of wonders to take you up and away.
The “blues” are introduced as rooted in African chants, with all the cast dressed in dashikis or kente cloth shirts. Suddenly, we're transported to the Tidewater area, then into the deep rich soil of the Mississippi delta, or the hardscrabble life in the hills of Kentucky. During the '20s Great Migration, the music travels to Chicago's fabled South Side, where again it's transformed. We discover that the “blues” we assumed was always a tragic lento lament of lost love or unbearable hardness encompassed gospel, toe-tapping comedy numbers, country or just plain sex. It can be jubilantly subversive and funny, so the authors tell us. Whether this be true or a sop thrown to the matinee crowd, I'm not competent to say, but this particular romp through the “blues” is nothing if not raucous, upbeat and joyous.
Except for one dramatic showstopper at the end of the second act that will take your breath away in a gasp: Roenia Thompson's rendition of the Abel Meeropol classic “Strange Fruit,” made famous in the 1939 recording by Billie Holiday. This dirge, with its sinuous melody, has lyrics that chill: “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…” This heartbreaking response to lynching is the “blues” incarnate. Alone in her spotlight, much like what Holiday demanded when she sang her signature song, Thompson digs deep and hard. It's wrenching, utterly haunting, deeply moving.
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But mostly, Blues is light and entertaining. Among highlights: the gospel-infused “I've Been Changed” or the rafter-raising “I Put a Spell on You” from the incandescent Michelle Davis; “Mind Your Own Business” from the lithe Manny Berry; “Danger Blues” and “The Thrill Is Gone” from guitarist extraordinaire Rodrick Randall (last seen in Obsidian's Passing Strange); a Ray Charles homage of “I Can't Stop Lovin' You” from the boneless Darry Hearon; a sleekly atmospheric Robert Johnson classic “Come Into My Kitchen” from sleek Mark Frazier; and a steamy “Fever” from Cheyenne James.
The accomplished artists are having so much fun onstage and we're having so much fun watching them, that the evening passes in a blink. This is due to the seamless direction by Roshunda Jones and the lively choreography by Bethany White. Not only are there 38 songs to master, but 38 different routines. When not center stage, everybody's a backup singer or dancer. Nobody stays still for long. They run around the auditorium, jump up on the two bars on each side of the stage, or sashay in the background. (Jean C. Gonzalez's set looks like the ideal jazz club with brick wall and cocktail tables.) Under the nimble fingers of pianist Jim Vukovich, who doubles as musical director, the four-member band sounds like the Philharmonic: Ichi on guitar; Eric Williams, bass guitar; Sean Ramos, drums. All abetted by tambourines, hand claps and table slaps by the cast and Randall's guitar licks.
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues is nothin' but pure delight. Forget the history lesson; it's only there to get us to the next song, each beautifully executed. The “blues” have never sounded so exciting, or so sunny.
It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through April 22 at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. For more information, call 713-467-4497 or visit queensburytheatre.org. $32-$80.