Review: Singing about the "Blues in the Night" at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

Listening to some of the best jazz and blues music from the 1920’s and 30’s, Blues in the Night features four exquisite singers and six soulful musicians transporting the audience on a historical journey while performing 27 songs by the great Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Benny Goodman and Johnny Mercer.

I was happy to see Sheldon Epps name in the program for Blues in the Night. He was the artistic director for the Pasadena Playhouse for 20 years and put on some excellent theatrical productions. Back in 1980, Epps conceived and directed this musical in New York with a brief run on Broadway in 1982. This show even scored a Tony nomination for Best Musical.

Scenic Designer John Iacovelli’s set is a cheap hotel in Chicago with words Jazz, Hotel and Bar individually spelled out in neon lights. We look into the rooms of three women dressed by Costume Designer Dana Rebecca Woods in evening robes, dresses and undergarments from the 1930s era, not made of the finest silk, since they are all living on the edge. Soon we learn two of the women have seen the world and have been burned by the men they love. The youngest has just been stood up by a man. Each sing the Bessie Smith hit “Blue Blues” about the men who have done them wrong.

 Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho.

Photo Credit: Lawrence K. Ho.

Next we meet The Man in the Saloon (charismatic Chester Gregory) as he shouts out “1, 2, 3, 4” and the six piece band featuring Larry Hartley as conductor and pianist, Kevin O’Neal on Bass, Randall Willis and Louis Van Taylor on Reeds, Lance Lee on percussion and Fernando Pullum on Trumpet play “Four Walls (And One Dirty Window) Blues” by Williard Robinson. Lighting designer Jared A. Sayer cleverly changes the colors of the windows in the hotel during each song.

Center stage is The Lady from the Road (Yvette Cason) standing in her bedroom and looking into her trunk filled with old costumes, feather boas and hats. She is waiting for TOBA to call - an acronym for Tough On Black Asses. When they call, “she will be right on top again.” While reflecting on her memories, she introduces the others in this show. She describes The Man in the Saloon (Gregory) as “a stuck up fool who sits with the band - the cock of the walk.” He doesn’t have a lot of money, yet “life is milk and honey for him.” During the show he tries to explain to these captivating women that “Wild women never worry, wild women don’t have the blues” in the Jam Session number (Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues) song by Ida Cox.

Next, Cason introduces The Woman of the World (Paulette Ivory) as a once affluent and “glamorous woman with fancy French phrases.” Her appetite for cheap wine and love leaves her feeling empty. When Ivory sings, her voice is mesmerizing and smooth as honey. As a disco ball drops down in her memory sequence while singing Stompin’ At The Savoy (by Benny Goodman, Andy Razard, Edgar Sampson and Chick Webb), the stage and audience are bathed in little white lights. Windows are lit in an array of rainbow colors as the band plays and she sings so beautifully.

Last, we meet The Girl with a Date (Bryce Charles) singing a sultry version of “Taking A Chance On Love” (by Vernon Duke, John La Touche and Ted Fetter). She is delightful to watch with her soul touching presence. When all three women sing together in harmony, it’s magical.

The show is not all about sad songs. Cason rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Take Me For A Buggy Ride” by Leola and Wesley Wilson and “Kitchen Man” by Andy Razad and Wesley Wilson has the audience laughing with the clever sexual innuendos in the lyrics.

Other favorite scenes include Ivory captivating the audience while singing Billy Strayhorn’s song Lush Life. It had my 86 year old father in tears, as did “Lover Man” (by Jimmy Davis, Jimmy Sherman and Roger “Ram” Ramirez) and “Willow Weep for Me,” (by Ann Ronnell) both sung by the alluring Charles.

Jazz vocalist and pianist Carmen McRae once said, “Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread. Without it, it’s flat.” Blues in the Night is a celebration of American music from a period in history that will never be forgotten. This show is a winner!