By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton sings, the little hairs on the backs of your wrists start to quiver. Her magnificent voice can split the heavens and move an audience to tears. In Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues, now onstage at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre, her performance in the starring role seems nothing short of divinely inspired.
This revival of the show written by Jubilee company member Joe Rogers and the company's founder, Rudy Eastman, introduces two God-given talents to theatergoers: Smith, the blues legend who died in a car accident in 1937 at age 42; and the woman who plays her, Goodspeed-Keyton, now in her mid-20s and certainly poised for a career in musical theater far beyond this tiny stage in Cowtown. In 18 songs, many of them written or co-written by the title character in the 1920s and '30s, Goodspeed-Keyton takes Smith from her bubbly teen years to the booze-sodden, blues-ridden days at the end of her life. The show captures the humor, toughness and sadness of the troubled "empress" who once described herself as "big, black and uncouth."
The musical biography is a tricky act. Too much talking, too many fact-laden trips down memory lane can get in the way of music the audience is there to hear. Empress of the Blues succeeds by being clever and economical in its storytelling and generous with its musical performances. It leaves us wanting more, not wondering how much more we have to hear. If only that were true of Dirty Blonde , a bio with music about Mae West now playing at Theatre Three. Instead of wanting more, this show just made me want to leave at intermission (I stayed, but the last hour was torture). Claudia Shear's jangled tribute to the bawdy Broadway and Hollywood icon is almost all talk, much of it not even about its central character. With just five songs, none of them remotely memorable, it can barely be considered a musical. And it's so packed with air-sucking blather about two fictional characters--Jo and Charlie, two obsessed West fans who meet at her grave--that it's only marginally biographical.
But back to the good stuff. Empress of the Blues, besides showcasing the remarkable pipes of Goodspeed-Keyton, offers a look at what made vaudeville such a popular entertainment form in the early 20th century. Bessie Smith was a staple of the vaudeville circuits of the '20s, along with such acts as Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and the comedian Pigmeat Markham, star of the "Heah comes da judge" comedy sketches later revived by Sammy Davis Jr. on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In TV series (Empress includes one, and it's a howl). Smith's career stumbled when vaudeville did. She tried a transition to the Manhattan supper clubs of the Jazz Age, but she was no Billie Holiday. Smith's songs--"Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer," "Me and My Gin" and "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl"--weren't the stuff of uptown swells. "I felt like a buzzard in a canary cage," Smith said of her unhappy foray into a gathering of upper-crusters on the Upper East Side.
The show uses Smith's own words in short vignettes presented as flashbacks as, trapped between life and death after that car wreck, she sings one last set for an unseen record producer named Mr. Christopher (Kevin Halliburton). As her life passes before her, she recalls the loves she won and lost (with men and women), battles she fought against both the KKK and black club owners more interested in "high yella" beauties than in dark-skinned women like herself. She shares poignant memories of family, home and "hot water cornbread" back in Chattanooga. The script is witty and cohesive, rarely sentimental. Smith cusses like a stevedore. The n-word is her favorite noun.
Act 1 takes Bessie Smith through teen years and into life on the road in vaudeville. When Act 2 opens, she's older and drunker, reeling from song to song and railing at being dropped by her record company. Her troubles are evident from the titles of her tunes: "Wasted Life Blues," "Down in the Dumps," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and "After You're Gone." Goodspeed-Keyton sings every one of them like a showstopper.
Directed by Eastman, with able musical direction by Rogers, Empress of the Blues is worth every road mile to Fort Worth. The Jubilee Theatre (just south of Sundance Square) is small and comfy. No need for microphones on Goodspeed-Keyton or her supporting cast members--Halliburton, Wendell L. Holden, Kendrick Mays, Robert Rouse--who make an angelic chorus of backup harmonies when they're not zipping in and out of different characters as the men in Smith's life. Costumes by Barbara O'Donoghue are evocative and unfussy. Lighting by Michael Pettigrew looks a bit dim and murky in some of the talkier flashbacks but otherwise keeps the star in the warm amber glow she deserves. For the price of a ticket, this show delivers an Empress and a goddess.