Get the Blues

Regional and community theaters have an annoying habit of promoting their productions as "Tony Award-winning," and of quoting reviews of the original New York cast, as if the quality of the original had anything at all to do with the local version. But early raves for Arizona Theatre Company's It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues are not only well-deserved but relevant, since this production reunites much of the original, Tony-nominated Broadway cast and its director in an extravagant tribute to the Mississippi Delta.

Co-produced with the Missouri Repertory Theatre, It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues is less a greatest-hits collection than a fast-paced history of roots music. The program's first 15 minutes comprise one long, amazing a cappella wail, a medley of sorts of the woeful melodies that gave birth to the blues. As photographs of early slaves are projected overhead, the cast moans and stomps out a series of traditional African songs that segue into gospel anthems, a handful of juke-joint numbers, and a longish tribute to Chicago honky-tonk tunes. There's a nod to the white man's role in shaping the blues, with Tamra Hayden's surprisingly touching "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains," about the white indentured servants who worked alongside the blacks, and a stirring tribute to Jimmie Rodgers and the influence of the blues on bluegrass music of the era.

There isn't much in the way of staging here; when the cast members aren't standing for a solo, director Randal Myler keeps them plunked in their seats, concert-style. A live band joins them onstage for the more spirited Act Two, but Blues isn't about song-and-dance routines; it's a travelogue of blues history set to music. There's a handful of songs you'd expect to hear, like "Fever," "The Thrill Is Gone," and Eloise Laws' raucous take on "I Put a Spell on You," but much of the show is (most gratifyingly) given over to more obscure material. Who but a true blues fan knows "Come On In My Kitchen," which Chic Streetman turns into a tremendous guitar-and-vocal duet? Jewel Tompkins' sultry "St. Louis Blues" is another standout, and "Who Broke the Lock?" is performed as the band would have done it at a blacks-only dance. And, because this is a celebration of the blues, nearly every other number is a fuck song: There's Hayden's naughty rendition of "Now I'm Gonna Be Bad"; Gregory Porter's hyper strut-and-holler on "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man"; and Streetman's positively filthy-with-sex take on Mississippi John Hurt's "Candyman."

Elsewhere, familiar tunes are reworked to reveal the influence of blues music on popular culture and song. Hayden finds the blues in a stunning "Walking After Midnight," which most of us have come to think of as a country tune; and you won't recognize "Goodnight Irene" as performed -- albeit briefly -- by one of the show's co-authors, "Mississippi" Charles Bevel.

David Kay Mickelsen distinguishes the two acts, which are really two entirely different shows, with widely variant costuming: In Act One, the cast performs spirituals and traditional African music in artfully draped rags; for the splashier Act Two, they reappear in vivid evening dresses and zoot suits to perform "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Wang Dang Doodle" and other more contemporary numbers.

ATC's production, which opened in December in Tucson, coincides with a proclamation by Congress naming 2003 "the Year of the Blues" in honor of the centennial anniversary of W.C. Handy, a music historian who became known as "Father of the Blues." But the blues -- one of our most timeless and influential musical genres -- doesn't need a congressional decree, or even a praiseworthy production like It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, to prove its value to American musical history.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela