Revue is rousing history

Musical: `It Ain't Nothin' ' strives to present the broad spectrum of the blues' emotions and styles.

June 27, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Near the end of the musical revue "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues," two songs are sung back to back that cogently demonstrate the range of the blues.

The first is a self-described "funked up" version of "Goodnight, Irene," performed with high-spirited one-upsmanship by "Mississippi" Charles Bevel and Sean McCourt. It's immediately followed by the plaintive Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit," sung by Gretha Boston in tones as mournful as a dirge and as impassioned as a cry of pain.

The show strives to present the broad spectrum of the blues' emotions and styles, as well as an abbreviated history of the genre. The best proof of how well it achieves these goals is that you leave the Terrace Theater at Washington's Kennedy Center feeling not only uplifted, but with restored faith in the resilience of human nature. If that doesn't sound "blue" enough, consider that, no matter how dire the subject matter, blues singers have always found sufficient spirit to translate their feelings into song.

Like the blues itself, this seven-person revue - written by Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman and directed by Myler - stems from humble origins. It began in 1994 as a 45-minute presentation for high school students produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company. Five years later, the show landed on Broadway where it was nominated for a Tony Award for best new musical.

With a minimum of narration, the revue uses slide projections and music to trace the evolution of the blues from the chants of uprooted Africans to spirituals, country music and the more specialized Delta and Chicago sounds, and on to its influence on U.S. pop music. There are songs such as "I Know I've Been Changed," that could be sung in church, and others, such as John Lee Hooker and Bernard Besman's "Crawling King Snake," that could get you kicked out of one.

When Boston belts out, "I'm Gonna Do What the Spirit Says Do," the fervor in her voice could bring you to your knees in prayer. But the full company's rousing delivery of Ruth and Walter ("Brownie") McGhee's "Living With the Blues" would soon have you back on your feet. And Michael Mandell's rocking rendition of the relatively recent "I'm a Blues Man" would have you dancing in the aisles.

After intermission, the cast reappears in evening clothes and gains a small back-up band as the blues move to the industrialized North. Highlights include Eloise Laws' sassy interpretation of "Someone Else Is Steppin' In" and Bevel's heartfelt, "I Can't Stop Lovin' You."

Reinforcing the fact that the blues aren't exclusively an African-American form, the cast includes two white singers, Carter Calvert and McCourt, who also is a versatile instrumentalist. Though Calvert brings a nice Patsy Cline twang to "Walking After Midnight," her delivery of "Fever" is one of the show's few disappointments, fizzling out long before it could burn.

Back in 1996, before Broadway was even a remote possibility, "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" played Arena Stage in Washington. In the interim, some cast members have changed, but the revue remains a moving tribute to one of the indigenous art forms of the United States.

It's well worth a second visit.

Full spectrum of the blues

What: `It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues'

Where: Kennedy Center, Terrace Theater, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and July 3; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. (No performance July 4.) Through July 30

Tickets: $50 and $55

Call: 800-444-1324

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