'Blues in the Night': a revue with heartfelt songs and a few misses

September 27, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

From the moment you hear Vanessa Stewart's big, rich, emotion-packed voice in Arena Player's production of the revue, "Blues in the Night," you want to hear her cut loose in a rip-roaring solo. And it's worth the wait when she launches into Bessie Smith's "Dirty No-Gooder's Blues" in the second act.

Lanky Ms. Stewart has a way of communing with the audience; she shares a song as if she's sharing a secret, leaning into the music and letting the choreography communicate almost as much as her expansive voice.

It's regrettable that the five-piece, on-stage band occasionally drowns her out -- even more so because the brass players aren't as sharp as they should be. And it's also regrettable that the other three cast members aren't up to Ms. Stewart's high level. But they come close several times, and director Ed Terry blends their voices skillfully in such group numbers as the rousing, "Take It Right Back" and the sultry title song.

Bill Johnson, the sole male cast member, comes across as a debonair ladies' man, without seeming like a rake. His delivery of the Duke Ellington-Mack David number, "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So," is filled with ingratiating charm.

As the seeming innocent in the trio of women who make up the heart of the show, Toni Richards has a youthful spark, accentuated by her occasional Betty Boop-sounding high notes. the second act, she appears a little more worldly, delivering a supposedly drunken rendition of Bessie Smith's "Reckless Blues." At one point she even sits in the lap of a gentleman in the front row; it's hammy but cute.

The most eccentric member of the trio is Ruby Dawson. With her heavy makeup and her hair in close-cropped blond marcel waves, Ms. Dawson's flamboyant appearance conveys a stronger impression than her performance, which often seems studied. However, she rises to the challenge of an a cappella rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

At the end of "Blues in the Night" -- which was conceived by Sheldon Epps in 1982 -- the ladies join in a trio of the Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler song, "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." Though they have the right, they don't all share the same oomph and angst. The result is an entertaining, but never quite heart-wrenching valentine to the blues.

'Blues in the Night'

When: Fridays at 8:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Through Oct. 6.

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

Tickets: $15.

Call: 728-6500.

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