It's a weird, weird thing to be sitting in a theater in Memphis, Tennessee, with my hands folded in my lap quietly watching a group of actors who have only been rehearsing together for a month sing the hell out of some blues. After all, it costs at least $20 to buy a theater ticket, but for only five bucks you can gain admission to places like Wild Bill's on Vollentine or any number of clubs, roadhouses, and juke joints to see real blues musicians who perform in tight, hot bands that have been playing together for years, even decades. In a club setting you can drink strong drink, smoke 'em if you got 'em, dance with total abandon, and get stark-raving wild.
Simply said, it seems redundant to produce a musical revue about the blues in a city where that musical style is so famous, so abundant, and so varied. Even an outstanding production like It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues -- which Circuit's is in fits and starts -- is doomed by context, and performers who are more than capable of delivering the sonic goods come off looking and sounding like cheap imitations of the real deal.
The songs collected for It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues provide an excellent and varied mix of African-American blues songs from the Mississippi Delta, St. Louis, and Chicago, with nods to white honky tonk, Basin Street jazz, and lonesome Appalachian balladry. When the band clicks and the performers hit their stride, it can be downright electric. But the music is often emasculated by coolly academic introductory dialogue that puts the songs in their historical perspective while killing any late-night moods that may have been established before the actors started talking.
In the first five minutes of It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, which is set in a dive bar in Anywhere, U.S.A., the audience is taken on a musical safari that begins in the heart of Africa, makes its way through the cotton fields of Dixie, and ends in the Chicago offices of Chess Records. The musical moves from there into a variety of minstrel songs, gospel, and folk ballads, and it is especially interesting (and a little refreshing) that artists like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline are reduced to token players in a field where there are few white royals.
Timothy Lee Matthews, the only actor to strap on a guitar and play along with the band, is the highlight of the show. His renditions of "Blues Man," "Let the Good Times Roll," and "The Thrill Is Gone," are all excellent examples of good songs simply sung, but his performance of Muddy Waters' "I'm You're Hoochie Coochie Man" is a real show stopper. Matthews makes singing the blues look easy, and no matter how hard he's working he gives the audience a sense that they ain't seen nothing yet. He gets downright nasty but with such subtlety you won't blush until you're halfway home.
Matthews is matched only by a sassy and seductive Crystin Gilmore whose rafter-rattling, lacquer-lifting voice is perfectly suited for numbers like "Wang Dang Doodle," "My Man Rocks Me," and the anthemic "Someone Else Is Steppin' In."
While the musical gives much love to Mississippi and the Delta in general, Memphis is shortchanged. It's treated like a minor stepping stone between the primitive sounds of the cotton fields and the perfected electric funk of Chicago. There are also some effective and necessary nods to Missouri blues, with Niambi Webster's performance of the Billie Holiday weeper "Strange Fruit" being the best example.
Megan Bowers, a standout in Circuit's recent production of Floyd Collins, starts off awkwardly, unable to insert herself into "copulatin' blues" tunes such as "Now I'm Gonna Be Bad" or country weepers such as Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight," but when she hits with the Peggy Lee classic "Fever," everybody's temperature goes up. Andrew Weir, a performance intern for Playhouse on the Square, doesn't fare nearly as well. Though Weir's a gifted singer, everything he touches becomes a show tune, which, for this musical, is a real no-no.
Actors Burnnie D. Moore, Rod O'Neal, and Madeleine Carol Rogers all have exceptional moments. It's just a little bothersome to me that all this blues is taking up theater space in a city that's already lousy with the blues. On the other hand, if ItAin't Nothin' But the Blues were in rotation on Beale Street serving the tourist community or on stage at a Tunica casino, I'd be the first to stand up and say bravo.
At Circuit Playhouse through April 3rd