'Nothin' But the Blues' and a whole lot of fun

November 26, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Things start heating up early in "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues," when the cast cuts loose with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee's "I've Been Living With the Blues."

And indeed, the folks who put this musical revue together have been living with it for more than two years, ever since its beginnings as a 45-minute school touring show mounted by the Denver Center Theatre Company. Between then and now, it has grown to full-length, sold out in Denver, been a hit in Cleveland in conjunction with the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is currently at Washington's Arena Stage.

Its title is something of a misnomer because, in addition to the blues, this anthology of 45 songs includes everything from African chants to spirituals to country to a hint of rock. There's even zydeco. In other words, instead of "nothin' but the blues," we also get some of what led into the blues and some of what the blues inspired.

Despite its educational origins, the show's intent now appears to be sheer entertainment, which may explain why it's better at conveying joy than heartbreak. The result is more powder blues than deep blues -- a situation that rankled the purist sitting behind me.

But if you're just looking for a good time, you won't be disappointed. The show's four author/performers, "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman -- a fifth author is director Randal Myler -- have distinct styles, as do its other soloists, Carter Calvert, Eloise Laws and Chic Street Man.

From his long gray hair to the longing wail in his voice, Bevel comes closest to the genuine blues, particularly in Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues" and "Crossroad Blues." Rotund Taylor the crowd-pleaser of the group. His rousing "Hootchie Coochie Man" had several ladies in the front row in raptures.

Street Man, familiar to Center Stage patrons from last season's "Spunk," repeats a few of the songs he performed in concert in Baltimore, including Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen" and Street Man's original, "Rag Man," both performed with a sly attitude and engaging nasal delivery.

The country and zydeco portions fall mostly to Wheetman, whose broad vocal range does them justice. As a songwriter, he contributes the first of several sultry numbers performed by Calvert, who really hits her stride with a Patsy Cline-style "Walkin' After Midnight" and a Peggy Lee-style "Fever." Laws puts a growling spin on "Screamin' " Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" and leaves no doubt who's in charge in her don't-mess-with-me rendition of "Someone Else is Steppin' In."

My only reservation concerns Gaithers, a devotee of the Patti LaBelle screeching school of music. The Billie Holiday classic, "Strange Fruit," in particular, would work better in more mournful tones, instead of being belted.

The show's structure, aided by slide projections, begins in Africa, progresses through slavery and, in the less-defined second half, continues in the urban north. In this section, the seven singers, who double as instrumentalists, are augmented by a half-dozen back-up musicians. "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" is not only enjoyable holiday fare, it also ties in neatly with several other area shows, beginning with "Always Patsy Cline" (which was at the Mechanic Theatre last weekend), and continuing next month with that theater's presentation of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" (a rock-and-roll show with roots in the blues) and Center Stage's "Thunder Knocking on the Door" (which derives, in part, from the Robert Johnson legend).

Even on its own, however, "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" will have you sharing the sentiments expressed in one of the show's spirituals -- "How Can I Keep from Singing."

'It Ain't Nothin'

Where: Arena Stage, 6th Street and Maine Avenue Southwest, Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through Jan. 19

Tickets: $23-$42

Call: (202) 488-3300

Pub Date: 11/26/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.