Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton stars as blues great Bessie Smith at Jubilee Theatre.
Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton stars as blues great Bessie Smith at Jubilee Theatre.
Buddy Myers

Dirty Blonde, Black Roots

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.


Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues

continues at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth through April 18 (no performance Easter Sunday). Call 817-338-4411.

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.

Now to Dirty Blonde, an enervating theatrical experience if ever there was one. Jo and Charlie (Julie Johnson, Terry Dobson) are a couple of shlubby Mae West worshipers who get together to pore over scrapbooks of the bawdy old star. Charlie, who's either the swishiest straight man in America or just played that way by Dobson, secretly dresses up in wigs and sparkly dresses à la West. Jo does, too. They fall in love with drag and in drag in a show that drags on well past the two-hour mark.

The confusing concept of Dirty Blonde, directed by Jac Alder, sends Johnson spinning in and out of the Mae West character, sometimes in her own frizzy brown hair and sometimes wearing a curly white-blond wig. The roles of Charlie and Jo exist as vehicles to spout exposition about West's life and career. The show only comes to life when Johnson's playing West, and though she does a passable impersonation of the actress' ooh-ooh voice, she doesn't have the pelvic oomph the old broad had. Even into her dotage, Mae West oozed sex appeal. Johnson doesn't, even when she's purring lines like "Ten days in jail? What about my nights?"

On the tech side, Dirty Blonde is dull as dishwater. Lighting by Carl Munoz is dreary and on the night reviewed had several missed cues. Set design by Harland Wright amounts to a big pink circle painted on the floor. It's getting tiresome to keep harping on the lousy costumes this theater insists on forcing on its actors, but even with a limited budget (what, about $1.95 per show?) Patty Korbelic Williams has assembled an especially ragtag selection of outfits for a character, West, who was never less than glamorously turned out in real life. This theater's Mae West is wrapped in a long boa so cheap it sheds feathers like Big Bird in a hailstorm. Dobson stoops to pick up each lost plume and sticks them in his pocket, to be recycled for the next show, I'd guess, that needs a hot-glued Indian headdress.


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