KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 14, 1998
Music inevitably marks our history — both individual and collective. Two current shows tell a story through music: one conveys the evolution of a people; the other marks a moronic moment in time. They’re as different as black and white.
“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” begins with its African origins, and traces the development of a gut-wrenching American musical style, from the South to Appalachia, from Cajun country to the smoky clubs of Chicago, from the ache and pain of slavery to the joyful, prayerful hope for a better future. Deep, rich and earthy.
“Polyester,” on the other hand, is light, silly and as synthetic as the fabric and the 70’s music it venerates.
I mean, how seriously can you take songs like “Shake Your Booty” and the theme from “Scooby Doo?” Not seriously at all, which is the heinous mistake of the first 2/3 of the Green Room Theatre company production. There they are, in a Hillcrest storefront, basking in the light of a mirror ball, backed by a Seussian world of pastel amoeboid drawings and phony sugar-lump mountains leading to a curvaceous catwalk. And they’re singing songs by the Carpenters and KC and the Sunshine Band, as if they really meant something. That’s the way, uhuh, uhuh they like it — singing these ridiculous songs straight. Uh-uh uh-uh.
Then, along comes Randy Newman’s “Short People.” Paula Pierson struts out in a heavy-duty police outfit, helmet and all, and starts ticketing vertically challenged people in the audience as she sings. Now that’s the tone this thing should have; Irreverent, tongue in cheek, taking it to the limit. Only high tenor David Miller, a recent musical theater transplant from Chicago, had it right throughout — sardonic and satirical — and he’s a hoot. Excluding Christopher Nelson, who always sings either a tad sharp or a trifle flat, the rest of the four-person cast has excellent voices — but not for this material. They do great as an ensemble, with lush harmonies arranged by G. Scott Lacy, but neither Sarah Altman’s lovely soprano nor Pierson’s mugging musical comedy shtick, nor the deliciously honeyed, oozy-bluesy voice of Mimi Francis, is suited to a pop-rock format. But when they become the Village People, or do a gay take on “Love Will Keep Us Together,” they make the show worth watching. Otherwise, it just leaves us wondering why, when the 70s were such a witless decade, we’d ever want to relive them in earnest. I just don’t get it.
But everybody gets the blues.
MUSIC: “I’ve Been Living with the Blues”
And this show, which premiered in 1995, and embarks from the San Diego Repertory Theatre on its first national tour, is 46 songs and almost three hours of sighin’, achin’, wailin’, whinin’, hopin’, prayin’, preachifyin’, testifyin’ and mystifyin’ sheer musical magic. In short, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Well, that’s not quite right. If it dispensed with some of the forced, strained narration, it would be nothin’ but the blues, set against a stark backdrop of black and white slides of the legends who made the blues, and the everyday people who lived the lives bemoaned in the blues.
There’s not much distraction. Little movement. No musical accompaniment in the first act. It’s much more like a concert than a theater piece. But no matter what you call it, it sings. With throbbing, burning melodies and ultra-tight harmonies. Each of the seven song stylists gets to strut his or her best stuff, and each has at least one opportunity to bring down the house — “The Thrill is Gone,” from he show’s conceiver, big man with big talent Ron Taylor; “Fever” from Carter Calvert, the sexy, seething white-chick-with-attitude; a provocative “Strange Fruit” from Lita Gaithers; “Someone Else is Steppin’ In” from Eloise Laws; Gregory Porter’s “Crawlin’ King Snake” and “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” from “Mississippi” Charles Bevel. It’s a long trip, and some trimming would be to everyone’s benefit; the trail of the blues gets muddy in the second act. But this is one exhilarating and inspiring journey.
MUSIC, under and out: “Blues Man”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.