KPBS AIRDATE: February 16, 1994 >
To paraphrase an old Harold Arlen standard, everyone’s “got a right to sing the blues.” But African-Americans have the blues in their blood. For more than a century, they’ve known it, lived it, developed it, refined it. Blues songs typically tell of the pain of poverty, the loss of love, and the burden of oppressively hard work. Sometimes, there’s a little side-trackin’ detour into the torments (and delights) of raw sex. In Sheldon Epps’ musical revue, “Blues in the Night,” now running at the Old Globe, we don’t hear much about destitution and daily drudgery. But we get a truckload on the subjects of love and sex, a delicious and kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of aching, sorrowful blues, as well as up-tempo, raunchy, funny, party-time blues, with some jazz, boogie-woogie and pop thrown in. The blues aren’t about bitching; they’re about survival, and, literally and figuratively, makin’ it through the night. Hence the title of this 1980 revue.
“Blues in the Night” is set in a sleazy, Chicago hotel in the 1930s, but the 26 songs are classics and lesser-knowns from the ’20s through the ’40s. The characters are prototypes: The Lady from the Road, The Woman of the World, The Girl with a Date and The Man in the Saloon. Minimal plot or not, I dare you not to get caught up in it all. Purists might balk; it’s not all straight, down-‘n’dirty blues, but there’s musical material here for every taste and temperament..
In both the singing and acting department, the females are fabulous, and each gets a chance to strut more than her stuff. The blues ain’t the blues until a fat lady sings, and Vickilyn Reynolds amply fills the bill. As The Lady from the Road, she pulls bits and pieces of her life out of an old steamer trunk, and relives a pretty wild and sordid chorus girl past, donning outrageous outfits and singing hilarious songs. She shimmies and growls in the sexy Bessie Smith number, “It Makes My Love Come Down,” and in the show-stopping “Take Me For a Buggy Ride,” where she really grinds her gears, she looks like a big, bee-striped, garish buggy herself. Then she hits a different kind of climax in a full-throttle, powerhouse rendition of “Lover Man,” followed closely by the uproarious, multiple-entendre’d food-‘n’-sex song, “Kitchen Man.” Easy laughs, to be sure, but a terrific, pace-changing number. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything much like it in the second act. Things stay pretty somber. Effective, but more relentless. [And Reynolds goes way too long and way over the top in the drawn-out, self-indulgent “Wasted Life Blues.”]
As the world-weary Woman, Alisa Gyse-Dickens oozes sexuality. A long, lithe, beauty with a rich, sultry voice, she’s sensuous to watch and listen to. And she’s radiant in numbers like Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and her strongest song of the evening, “Rough and Ready Man.” The Girl With a Date is a less defined character, and Kimberly Jajuan doesn’t look quite as young or starry-eyed as she should, but she does a great job on “Taking a Chance on Love.”
The biggest disappointment of the evening is the biggest name, Billy Davis, Jr. late of the Fifth Dimension and musical collaborations with his mate, Marilyn McCoo. He’s the only one who can’t really act a role; he just speaks lines, and swallows most of them at that. His brings little life and verve to the no-good, shiftless guy he’s supposed to be. Behind the action, the four-piece onstage band is usually hot, but sometimes too cool, in the sense of emotional distance. Overall, though, it’s an evening of great fun and great music. These timeless songs sure strike familiar chords.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.