Blues States

What is it about the blues that makes feeling bad feel so good? Two new productions are singing the blues in different ways--one musically, one satirically--but there's something immensely satisfying for the theatergoer in both.

It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, the nostalgic revue that just opened the new season at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, is a sprawling, bawling tribute to America's most seductive musical form. Directed by WTT's artistic director, Terry Martin, the show features seven powerhouse singers--Rachel Arthur, Kevin Haliburton, Denise Lee, Markus Lloyd, Liz Mikel, Cedric Neal and Willy Welch--belting their way through a 37-song history of the African-American experience. They begin with the booming African chant "Odum de," sung a cappella, and gradually work into standards such as "St. Louis Blues," "I'm a Blues Man" and "Walkin' Blues."

Despite what the title claims, the show goes way beyond just the blues. As explained in brief spurts of lively patter between songs, the blues influenced and was influenced by gospel, bluegrass, country and rock and roll. So we get a bit of all of those, including get-down renditions of "Let the Good Times Roll," "Walking After Midnight," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and a catchy little ditty called "Wang Dang Doodle."

Blues traditionally is steeped in sadness, from heartache to heartbreak and back again. But on the WaterTower stage, even the most downbeat songs are sung with such tantalizing style, the audience can't stop smiling. Liz Mikel's hypnotic performance of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" brings out a mystical sweetness in the lyrics. A goddess of generous proportions, Mikel thrusts all of her womanly wiles into the sexy "My Man Rocks Me," sung from a rocking chair. Mikel and Lee's haunting duet on Lewis Allen's "Strange Fruit," given a fresh arrangement by musical director Sheilah Walker, is so clear and pure it pierces the heart. And Haliburton, memorable from Jubilee Theatre's Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues last season, visibly and vocally expresses the pain in Roy Hawkins and Rich Darnell's "The Thrill Is Gone." Neal and Lloyd provide comic relief and some spirited dance steps on many of their numbers. Neal's best moment comes at the end of the first act with the gospel anthem "Children, Your Line Is Draggin'."

It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Tony-nominated in 2000, is one of the best of the audience-pleasing musical pastiches, every bit as good as Ain't Misbehavin' and Smoky Joe's Café. Sure, it can get a little hammy, all that eye-rolling and hip-popping. But there's roof-raising, righteous fun in the thing. And you won't hear better singing on any Dallas stage this fall.

The women of Echo Theatre sing their own brand of blues in the biting political satire Dreaming America: In the Bunker With George, now playing at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake. This is good old-fashioned agitprop theater, angry, partisan, accusatory and unabashedly feminist. It's satisfying as hell for free-speech-loving liberals like me who are sick to bleedin' death of the right-wing ravings of the woman-hating O'Reilly runts and radio ditto-heads. Bring it on and hit 'em where it hurts.

Written and performed by Echo's Rhonda Blair, Terri Ferguson and Jerrika Hinton, Dreaming America, directed by Pam Myers-Morgan, fearlessly blasts away at tight-sphinctered red-state attitudes in 75 minutes of clever, smartly worded sketches, monologues and songs. They skewer Highland Park Botox moms and fundamentalist Rapture-seekers. They march through a meticulously researched history of the vibrator. Bet you didn't know the early models were gasoline-powered. Talk about big bang theory.

They examine the frightening absurdity of the Big W by quoting him directly, reminding us that the prez once said, "There ought to be limits to freedom." Many times during the show, the women take turns repeating the phrase "I'm scared." And they have every right to be. The brand of fight-the-power guerrilla theater they're staging is in danger of becoming extinct. Ye olde First Amendment isn't what it used to be. Voices this intelligent, bold and anti-establishment are being drowned out under a tidal wave of dissent-strangling, twisted patriotism. The cultural Taliban is already enforcing the new rules. Just ask the Dixie Chicks, Bill Maher, Howard Stern and Janet Jackson.

Much of Dreaming America reminded me of the barbed comic commentaries of the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from the late 1960s. Those guys dared to take on the Vietnam War and Presidents Johnson and Nixon under the guise of being gentle, non-threatening folk singers. Tommy and Dickie were brilliant at slipping into their comedy routines sly digs at the powers that be (Steve Martin was among the staff writers). Theirs was the first prime-time TV show appealing to kids that not only spoke out against the war but booked what were then highly controversial "protest singers," including Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. By 1969, under pressure from the White House to shut the brothers up, CBS canceled the show, even though it had top ratings.

Dreaming America, with its use of slides, video and Janis Joplin songs, as well as the spoken word, recalls some of the Smothers Brothers' stuff, which also frequently used politicians' own words to expose their hypocrisy. In the Echo show, Hinton reads aloud from Sisters, Lynne Cheney's tawdry, Sapphic sex novel, as Blair and Ferguson dance a lesbian tango. In a bit titled "Bush, God and Rhonda," Blair expresses her incredulity in the president's claim that "God speaks through me." There's a running gag about Jesus phoning the president to remind him of the true meaning of certain biblical passages about murder and greed. The Son of God keeps getting put on hold.

This isn't a slick show, and the women of Echo Theatre might have to be satisfied with preaching to the small bands of the already converted who'll buy tickets, but Dreaming America has something important and interesting to say about the effed-up state of things. Let's hope they're still free to say it a month from now. A year from now. Four years from now.

I can dream, can't I?

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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