Glad to Have the Blues

Black Theatre Troupe has scored another hit with its all-around pleasant production of Blues in the Night at the Herberger Theater Center. While the company has turned out several engaging dramas these past few seasons, its attempts to sell a decent musical have been less notable. This one, though, is bursting with swell singing and dancing, and enough distinguished material to please audiences not so blues-friendly.

Set in a Skid Row fleabag, Blues in the Night presents a trio of ladies whom love has done wrong. The Lady From the Road is a has-been blues singer hoping for one more good gig; The Girl With a Date is about to be stood up again; The Woman of the World has been to every party, and lately isn't being invited back. While they wail their romantic woes, The Man in the Saloon searches for another heart to break.

It's that man -- or rather, the singer/dancer/director/choreographer who portrays him -- who's largely responsible for giving these 28 mostly renowned jazz and blues numbers their oomph. Reggie Kelly is butter-smooth as the cad who sings "When a Woman Loves a Man" and "Baby Doll," and equally proficient as the man behind the moves. He's invested the show with a good deal of mobility -- no easy task when his cast is confined in tiny, cell-like hotel rooms. His choreography has a repose and pacing that don't detract from the singers or their long Hit Parade of songs.

Good thing, too, because I didn't want to miss a moment of Evelyn Brown-Gray's performance. Her bluesy ballads are one-woman shows, and when she turns up in costumer Linda Benson's huge, violently orange bustle dress wailing "Take Me for a Buggy Ride," or selling the naughty food metaphors of "Kitchen Man," there's no one else in the house.

And while this show is a winner, I'd gladly sit through dreck if it means Erahn Patton-Stinson will eventually show up on stage to sing and dance a little. A singing actress of both wit and power, she finds something sweet in the sassy young thing waiting for her next broken heart. She sings "Willow Weep for Me" as if she's done so every day of her young life.

Unfortunately, Nancy Taylor's performance as The Woman pales by comparison. This lovely chanteuse occasionally wanders off-key, aims most of her vocals heavenward, and seems always as if she'd rather be someplace else. She's more lively in the handful of numbers sung by the company, which, I'm sorry to report, is backed throughout by a sleepy five-piece band whose occasional tunefulness was swallowed up somewhere backstage.

Michael J. Eddy has cloaked the proceedings in the dreamy spotlights and moody fog of a smoky nightclub that flatter both singers and dancers alike. Normally, interpretive dance gives me hives, but Kelly has created some amazing jazz ballet numbers that balance the singers' sorrowful songs with high-stepping hopefulness. These bits owe much of their success to the talents of a pair of dancers with delightful names. Romeo Green and LaToya Tuck are the hotel's fleet-footed bellboy and housemaid whose performances inspired my companion, a sometime dancer himself, to whisper, "Those two should be on Broadway somewhere."

Happily, they are here, accompanied in most corners by some equally refined talent. They are, for the next several weeks, filling Thom Gilseth's gorgeously shabby hotel set with some perfectly wonderful song and dance.

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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