For a musical without a real book, Blues in the Night, now at the Dallas Theater Center, tells a powerful story. Of broken romances and forbidden loves. Of late-night, gin-soaked laments for how things might have been. Most of all, of the power of a good woman, sadder but wiser for giving her heart to the wrong man.
Using 26 great old songs by Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and other songwriters of the jazz-blues-swing era of the 1930s and '40s, this high-concept musical revue travels a rhythm-rich arc of emotions through one night in the lives of three unnamed women.
The Girl With a Date (Cynthia Hardy) is the ingenue who seems just to have arrived in the neighborhood of half-lit frilly boudoirs and smoky juke joints that make up Vicki R. Davis' gauzy set. The Woman of the World (Roz White) is a little older and knows that nobody knows the troubles she's seen, but she's just too damn tired to care. And The Lady From the Road (Bernardine Mitchell) has been there, done that and kicked it all on its big nasty ass a hundred times over.
The women's personalities, physical silhouettes and voices are distinctly different--Hardy has an uneven but pleasant soprano, White belts like the great Nancy Wilson, Mitchell can growl like Bessie Smith or put on a Nell Carter squeak--but in the moments when they sing together, they seem to be portraying one big, beautiful woman, raging through bluesy ballads and melting into love songs with gut-wrenching heart and soul.
Prowling through the ladies' midst like a panther in a loud red sport coat is the sole male in the show, the gap-toothed Man in the Saloon (Charles E. Bullock). His flirty persona never connects with the women specifically, but his songs' sexy lyrics imply that he has known them all as more than passing acquaintances. Bullock's velvety voice and catlike dance moves complement the female energy onstage, and his presence gives the women something to focus on and wiggle around.
The abstract take on characters and "plot" in Blues in the Night, conceived by Sheldon Epps and directed here by Kenny Leon, works fine. All those witty, poetic, romantic, sometimes overtly suggestive songs tell enough stories on their own to keep the show's momentum rolling forward.
And oh, those lush lyrics. Like Billy Strayhorn's classic "Lush Life," sung by The Woman (White) as she slowly pulls on soft ruffles for a night out that she knows won't live up to expectations:
"I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis
Of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails..."
Mmmm, "relaxes on the axis." They don't write 'em like that anymore.
Getting ready for her date, The Girl (Hardy) takes a languid turn through Vernon Duke's optimistic "Taking a Chance on Love":
"Here I go again
I hear those trumpets blow again
All aglow again
Taking a chance on love
Here I slide again
About to take that ride again
Starry eyed again
Taking a chance on love."
Who hasn't felt like that on the way out the door to new love?
There are plenty of other hummable standards in this show, including Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy" and Ann Ronell's "Willow Weep for Me." But the best tunes by far turn out to be the ones least familiar to younger ears: Bessie Smith's "It Makes My Love Come Down"; Ida Cox's "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues"; Alberta Hunter's "Rough and Ready Man."
Then come the novelty songs that turn the air a little blue with their R-rated double-entendres.
"Daddy, you really knows your stuff when you take me for a buggy ride,"sings The Lady (Mitchell), grinding her way through Leola and Wesley Wilson's comic ode to booty calls. "I like you when you got your habits on, you can shift your gear with so much pride."
Mitchell also gets custody of the hilarious vaudeville tune "Kitchen Man" by Andy Razaf and Wesley Wilson, and she takes it to town and back. "I'm wild about his turnip tops/I crave the way he warms my chops," she sings in a voice juiced with sexy energy. "His jelly roll so nice and hot/Never fails to touch that spot."
The two major stars in this production are the music and Bernardine Mitchell. When she's soloing in the spotlight, she commands the stage like an opera diva. She's so magnetic to watch, one searches her out at other times, too, only to find her lounging silently upstage on her brass bed amid a shadowy pile of feather boas. She's so much fun to listen to, it feels like a bonus every time she steps up to sing another big number in a voice that starts at her heels and takes off like a Saturn rocket. Mitchell is a goddess of generous proportions who holds nothing back physically or vocally. And lacking much of a script to dictate transitions in mood, she brings to her role some remarkably subtle shifts of emotion, simply through her facial expressions and delicately feminine gestures.
Crucial to the success of Blues in the Night are musical director/pianist William Knowles and his four musicians (Ira Basset, Gary Wooten, Buddy Mohmed, John Simon). They are onstage throughout, a hot little band with a big, big sound.
Costumer Susan E. Mickey has dressed the cast in bold citrus colors, layering the actresses in diaphanous gowns over silky lingerie and gartered stockings, like figures in vintage photos of great chanteuses (including Bessie Smith) from the 1920s.
Intoxicating and seductive, Blues in the Night reaches deep and hits all the right spots.
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