Drive, ride, or run down to MetroStage for Bessie’s Blues!
Bessie’s Blues is one big shiny bauble-filled with song, dance, and more than a few double entendres, smack downs and hilarious patter about love relationships. Bessie’s Blues, starring a formidable cast of triple threats, very loosely follows the arc of Bessie Smith’s life. Her career was cut short when she died in a car accident in 1937 at the age of 43.
Most of the songs were not written in Bessie’s time. They were penned in the early 80s by Tom Jones and Keith Rawls. Nevertheless, they reflect the style of blues and jazz standards popular in the 20s and the 30s. “Get With It” was an exception; this hip hop/rap number was unexpected and delightful. In this musical almost every song was “my favorite.” Bernardine Mitchell, as Bessie, kept her mojo going through the 33-song program. Her presence was felt even if she wan’t singing.
Many shows about singers follow the pattern of dialogue, songs made famous by the artist, more dialogue, then another signature song. One of the things that made this production fun was that most of the patter and spoken interaction are woven into the fabric of individual songs as well as bridges between songs. Instead of musings about career, most of the spoken word had to do with the need to be loved, both emotionally and physically.
“Wet Match,” headed up by Lori Williams (Passion), was one of the most graphic songs about love. The adult audience lapped it up. Immediately following was “Tell Me More/If You Don’t I Know Who Will,” an expose on “horny hungry,” sung by Bernadine Mitchell (Bessie). Throughout the evening, Roz White (Rhythm) brought extra spunk, strong vocals, and appropriate attitude to the stage.
The four men, TC Carson (Lover), Stephawn P. Stephens (Blood), Djob Lyons (Midnight), and LC Harden, Jr. (Bluesman) delivered a doo-wop rendition of “Don’t Wanna Marry Just Wanna Be Your Man.” During the number, Williams declares, “Crap like that makes you set a man on fire… then pull him out with an ice pick.” Lover, Blood, Midnight, and Bluesman added to the action through several numbers during which they sang while effortlessly turning out some complicated soft shoe choreography.
The mens’ fourth wall was much more porous than that of the women. Stephens’ (Blood) baritone could often be heard as he came down the steps in the audience. All of the men used their “come hither” faces to play with individual audience members.
Particularly effective was Nia Harris (Dancer). Her movement amplified the emotions of other ensemble members. One stunning moment occurred when a long scarf-like cloth, held at one end by a male cast member, was unwrapped from the brim of her hat as she turned about multiple times. This feat exemplified the imagination of Costume Designer Frank Labovitz and Director and Choreographer Thomas W. Jones II.
Scenic and Projection provider Robbie Hayes provided a simple backdrop of three dimensional letters spelling “BLUES.” Cast members and Lighting Designer Alexander Keen worked the props effectively. The letters were used as a bench, a wall, or something to partially hide behind. The letters also served as a backdrop for projections of solid white, blue and pink and as the screen for video of different times in Bessie’s life. None of the use of the large letters interfered or distracted from the ensemble.
Music Director William Knowles and his small ensemble provided a backbone for the singers but never interfered or overpowered them. Ron Oshima on sax made a one-song appearance on stage. Knowles, Gregg Holloway on drums, and David Cole on guitar, kept the music flowing without a stage presence.
Why now and why at MetroStage? The original was staged 20 years ago at The Studio Theater, both written and directed by the multi-talented Thomas W. Jones II. Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin noted, “the stars had aligned in just the right way.” The theater wanted to honor its long standing collaborative relationship with Jones, a director, playwright, lyricist, and choreographer. The 20th anniversary of Bessie’s Blues coincides with the 30th anniversary of what is now MetroStage. The original production was nominated for seven Helen Hayes Awards and took home six including Jones for Outstanding Director and for Resident Musical. Joining him in this production are two members of the original cast, Bernardine Mitchell as Bessie and Roz White as Rhythm.
I’ll say it one more time: Drive, ride, or run down to MetroStage to see the toe-tappin’ and hand clappin’ Bessie’s Blues!
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
‘In the Moment’: ‘Bessie’s Blues’ Remounted at MetroStage by David Siegel.