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A CurtainUp Review
It Ain't Nothing But The Blues

Finally, and as welcome as the blossoms bursting in Central Park, a musical that has you tapping your feet, clapping your hands and leaving the theater humming and smiling. It Ain't Nothing But the Blues is a small show thatís big in all the ways that count.

Each of the seven ensemble members projects strong personal appeal and has a big, powerful voice that could be heard even without mikes (The vibrations of Gretha Boston, Eloise Laws and Ron Taylor could probably knock a light glass off a shelf !) Their high voltage enthusiasm and energy are contagious enough to animate shoulders and hands of even the most laid back audience members.

The show's more than three dozen songs are so rich and varied and its shrewd arrangement into a photo-illustrated musical history works so well that you donít even notice the absence of elaborate staging and costumes. In fact, itís the carefully maintained simplicity (the menís baggy pants and suspenders, the womenís print dresses, the occasional use of simple instruments by the singers to implement the six-piece band) that underscores the authenticity of everything in this retrospective journey along the long river into which the rhythms of the blues have flowed over the years.

Starting at the root of the river the first act launches off with songs of free Africans and moves on to the blues born from slavery and beyond. Ron Taylor, the genial and amazingly graceful giant who came up with this concept, serves as singing narrator for the saga. The well-chosen historic photos projected onto two scre ens in rustic frames of weathered wood beautifully blend musical and social history.

It is an inclusive history with Dan Wheetman strumming his banjo and singing about the blues that exist "in bluegrass and hillbilly" and an acknowledgement of a common heritage of bondage (many Appalachian folk songs were written by people who were indentured servants). One of the great bluesmen, Robert Johnson is represented with three rousing numbers, including a show-stopping "Cross Road Blues" by show stoppers by "Mississippi" Charles Bevel.

After the African and rural beginnings of the acoustic blues the second act follows the migration to Chicago and the evolution of the urban blues. The women trade their print dresses for sexy black velvet evening gowns and the men their country bumpkin pants for more citified suits and hats. The show also turns into a veritable hit parade of blues classics that super charge the electricity throughout the theater.

One show stopper follows another. From the razzle dazzle of the sophisticated blues singer in Eloise Lawsí "Someone Else is Stepping In" to Carter Calvertís soulful "Walking After Midnight to a souped-up funny rendition of "Good-Night Irene" it all works.

Donít let the song and history blend of It Ainít Nothing But the Blues fool you into expecting another Bring In ĎDa Noise, Bring In ĎDa Funk (a black musical history told through tap dancing). This is not a book musical and probably even more accurately described as a very lively concert than a revue. But, as revues or any variations thereof go, they should all be as snappy and endearing as this one.

And hereís a closing caveat: Avoid tickets too much to the sides. The screens on the Vivian Beaumont stage are so angled that people sitting in side sections have limited vision which is too bad since the projections are very much worth seeing.

Written by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman
Directed by Randal Myler
Band: Kevin Cooper, Jim Ehinger, Debra Laws, Tony Matthews, Charlie Rhythm and Daryll Whitlow
Musical Direction: Dan Wheetman
Movement: Donald McKayle
Vocal Direction: Ligta Gaithers
With "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Gretha Boston, Carter Calvert, Eloise Laws, Gregory Porter, Ron Taylor, Dan Wheetman.
Set design: Robin Sanford Roberts
Costume design:Dione H. Lehbar
Lighting design: Dan Darnutzer
Sound design: Edward Cosla
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 W. 65th St. (212/ 239-6200)
First performance 4/22/99; opened 4/26/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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