Summer Blues

Want a show that's cool enough for these humid nights of summer? Want a show that's also hot enough to steam up the windows? Three talented ladies — and one randy male phantom who romances each of them in his fashion — sing the blues in Sheldon Epps's 1982 Tony-nominated jukebox musical Blues in the Night, now entrancing audiences at the Ensemble Theatre. There's no story, only the slightest pretext upon which to hang some 25 blues standards.

Three women live at the same seedy Chicago hotel and sing their hearts out about — what else? — the blues. 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 Renae Hearne). The Man in the Saloon (Timothy Eric) prowls through their vocal dreams or 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. And this show doesn't shine, it blazes.

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, if for no other reason than it allows us to hear some of America's greatest songs about lost love. It's a complete blues catalog, everything from standards "Am I Blue?" (Harry Akst and Grant Clarke) and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" (Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler) to some rare finds composed by iconic singer Bessie Smith: "Baby Doll," "Dirty No-Gooder's Blues" and "It Makes My Love Come Down."

Adding to the wide range are the raunchy comedy numbers, whose rich and spicy double entendres can still make one blush: "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" (Leola and Wesley Wilson), "Rough and Ready Man" (Alberta Hunter) and the ultimate in innocuous titillation, "Kitchen Man" (Andy Razaf and Alex Bellenda). When Miss Hearne, a voluptuous lady, purrs about her cook, Sam, giving notice and then juicily describes his culinary skills with succotash, sausage and turnip top, there's no doubt what she's praising.

In Reggie Ray's evocative '30s costuming, the three women get equal opportunity in the spotlight. Miss Hearne, a gifted comedian with a burnished sheen to her singing voice, brings down the house with the dramatic "Wasted Life Blues" (another treasure from Bessie Smith). Equal parts Aretha and Mahalia, she blows the roof off the Ensemble.

Svelte and attractive, Miss D'Meza surprises with her Jazz Age delivery of "Reckless Blues" (Bessie Smith again, with Madeleine Peyroux). "My mama says I'm reckless, my daddy says I'm wild," she sings as she shimmies her way up the staircase, where she flaunts her shapely gams. Or, cool and sultry, she croons the standard "Willow Weep for Me" (Ann Ronell) sitting at her vanity, while the window curtains gently billow behind her. She heats up the place just by sitting there and singing.

As the Woman of the World, Miss Thompson, with blond marcelled hair, drinks her way through her stay at the hotel, waiting for a lover who probably never existed. 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. In its quiet eloquence, it's another showstopper.

Giving the trio of ladies the once-over at least twice, Timothy Eric is a very cool, sexy cat who sings wickedly about their problems, as in "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" (an upbeat gem from the "uncrowned queen of the blues," Ida Cox). He struts and preens with cocky confidence, the handsomest rooster in the hen house.

The eye-filling, multileveled set by David Yates is the classiest of seedy joints, overflowing with telling little details like suitcases with satin linings and vanity tables with matching hassocks. It's more New York Algonquin than Windy City fleabag, but the levels keep the women separate, and there's always something to look at, thanks to Eric Marsh's colorful lighting.

If you're looking for character development and dramatic pacing, you won't find them in Epps's show, but Harris and Leake, the Ensemble's top-producing duo of its recent musical hits, take the worn-out jukebox concept and give it new life. With attitude, sass and talent, the phenomenal cast supplies the swing. The musical might be all about singing the blues, but everyone in the audience was in an awfully good mood when they left the theater.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover