The set-up: Three women live at the same seedy Chicago hotel and sing their hearts out about...what else, the blues, in Sheldon Epps' 1982 Tony-nominated jukebox musical, now entrancing audiences at the Ensemble. There's a young Girl With a Date (Candice D'Meza), a sophisticated Woman of the World (Roenia Thompson) and one failed trouper living on her memories, The Lady From the Road (Regina Hearne). A Man in the Saloon (Timothy Eric) prowls through their vocal dreams and comments ironically on their sorry state. That's it for script. The ladies never meet, although they sing a few songs together, and their characters don't have much in the way of depth, it's just a way of presenting talent and letting it shine. This show doesn't shine, it blazes.
The execution: Under the magic touch of director and choreographer Patdro Harris and the jazzy musical direction and arrangements by Carlton Leake, Blues flies high. It's the ultimate glorified concert, wondrously performed and immensely satisfying, as we relive some of America's greatest songs about lost love, losing love and once having had love. It's a complete blues catalog, everything from standards "Am I Blue?" and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," to some rare finds composed by influential American singer Bessie Smith, to raunchy vaudeville numbers, whose rich and spicy double entendres can still make one blush. When Miss Hearne, a voluptuous, extra-large lady, purrs about her cook, Sam, in "Kitchen Man," and then juicily describes his culinary skills with succotash, sausage and turnip top, there's no doubt what she's praising.
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In Reggie Ray's evocative '30s costuming, the three women get equal opportunity in the spotlight. Hearne, a natural comedian with a plangent singing voice, brings down the house with the dramatic "Wasted Life Blues." Cool and sultry, D'Meza croons the standard "Willow Weep For Me" (Ann Ronell) sitting at her vanity. She heats up the place just by sitting there and singing. As the Woman of the World, Thompson waits for a lover. Her rendition of "Lush Life" (Billy Strayhorn's classic tune where "romance is mush") tells us everything about her, and Miss Thompson interprets it with faded bitterness and steely resignation.
Eric is a very cool cat who jives around like a sexy specter or sings wickedly about their problems, as in "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues." He struts and preens with cocky confidence, the handsomest rooster in the hen house.
The verdict: The musical's all about singing the blues, but when the audience left the theater they were in an awfully good mood.
Through July 24. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. 713-520-0055. $20-$35.