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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
At first glance, you may think that the room with a plush easy chair, bureau, night table, red velvet curtains, chandelier, large mirrors and potted palms was a first class hotel suite. There's even a piano and music stand in the corner. But looks are deceiving. The setting that designer Yoshinori Tanokura has created evokes what was known as a "buffet flat," a party room in a joint designated for blacks only. The year is 1937 and the formidable blues singer Bessie Smith is hanging out with three musicians and some guests (the audience).
Angelo Parra's crusty but mainly blues-encrusted The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith takes place on the last night of Smith's life. As played by the bracing and talented Miche Braden, Smith (taking a slug of Jack Daniels, one of many taken during the course of the play) let's us know from the outset that "I Ain't in a Good Mood Today." Of course, that's just the message we expect to hear when it comes to someone who sings the blues.
It is doubtful that the devil had anything to do with the blues. But if he did, we owe him a lot of gratitude for some of the most get-under-your-skin and tell-it-like-it-is music ever created. Some familiar songs like "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "St. Louis Blues," and "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do," are threaded through Smith's blunt narrative flecked with saucy asides. Also included are some less familiar ones such as "How You Ever Loved a Man Who Was No Good," and "Kitchen Man Blues."
Smith's inimitable style is known for influencing many jazz singers. whether you're a fan of the legendary blues singer or have only heard of her, Braden's terrific singing and earthy portrayal won't disappoint. She embraces the sassy, sexy style and ornery personality that are the driving forces behind this musical play directed by Joe Brancato. Frankly, after other shows that have extolled the talents of Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday (also previously portrayed by Ms Braden) this is a fitting, no-holds-barred homage to the "Empress of the Blues."
Braden, a large woman, looks classy in a black sequined dress. Her marcelled hair evokes the 1930s, as does the Charleston and the time step that she dances in an attempt to get her guests into a party mood, even as she herself has dark premonitions (she died in a car crash later that night).
It's doubtful if spending more than the 80 minutes allotted to Smith's life could have brought more insight into this tough-as-nails, hard drinking, reefer smoking woman who admits, "I gotta give the devil his due." Even though we see Smith getting increasingly potted, it doesn't seem to get in the way either of the numerous songs or her detailed recollections of her childhood as one of seven children growing up in a one-room shanty in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The narrative covers Smith's tour with Ma Rainey, the blues legend Smith considered her mentor ("The Mother of the Blues done step aside for the Empress of the Blues,"). . . her unhappy marriages, first to a brute then to a loser. . . her intimate affairs with women. . .and her bold confrontation ("I stared into their holes,") with the Klu Klux Klan. . .even getting stabbed in a bar brawl, and surviving.
Smith's life is characterized by her bold and fearless attitude and a desire to succeed which she did with uncommon resolve for an African American woman during the 1920s. Her recording of Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin's "Down Hearted Blues" sold 780,000 copies but when swing became the new rage in music, her descent from fame was swift.
Braden gives us a swing version of "After You've Gone" but it is her deeply emotional "I Ain't Got Nobody" that she sings after losing her custody battle for her adopted son. It is in that song that Braden reveals another level of Smith's pain.
Braden is joined by three musicians —Sax player Anthony Nelson, pianist Scott Trent and James Hankins as Smith's bass player and friend "Pickle." No song list is provided in the program, but they all fit seamlessly into this intimate bio-play in which Bessie Smith's artistry is lovingly and entertainingly presented.
Editor's Note: This loving tribute to Bessie Smith has been entertaining audiences since we first encountered it Off-Broadway six years ago. For a look at that review, which includes a picture of Braden as Bessie Smith go here.
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