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The Devil's Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith
|The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing
-- epitaph on Bessie Smith's grave
If you like big-hearted, small-scale musicals, head immediately for Theatre 3 where Miche Braden has a high old time bringing the story and music of the legendary Bessie Smith back to life. Ms. Braden, a big, brassy lady in red, is the next best thing to having Smith on stage as she delivers such famous songs. “"There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight","I Ain't Got Nobody," "Kitchen Man","St. Louis Blues", "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"" and "After You've Gone."
Braden not only captures the soulful richness of the singing style of the "Empress of the Blues" but the essence of her boozy, feisty personality. Angelo Parra's book for the show spans all of Bessie's short life -- from her childhood in Chattanooga, to her
vaudeville days with
Ma Rainey's troupe, her run-ins with the Klu Klux Klan ("I stared right into their holes"", her bad marriage, and penchant for booze
and lovers of both sexes.
While the mood is mostly light, Parra does not omit her hearbreaking battle for custody of her adopted son and the fizzling of her career in the 1930s and the fatal 1937 auto accident which ended any chance at a comeback. It is in fact her last concert before that accident which begins and ends the show. It's an informal concert at a Memphis Tennessee "buffet flat" -- a familiar type of private after hours joint where Blacks used to gather. That set, beautifully evoked by Matthew Maraffi, gives Ms. Braden plenty of leeway to move around. It also gives the audience of the small theater the sense of being in that "flat" with Bessie. This makes for a sense of great intimacy and a visibly and audibly enthusiastic audience -- a sort of performer-viewer call and response.
Interesting as Bessie was as a personality, it's the music that makes the show. Braden, besides being a terrific performer has also done a fine job of arranging the fourteen songs. And while some might tag this a one-woman show, the trio of musicians are integral to the show's success. They are right on stage where they belong, with Terry Walker as Pickle, Smith's pianist and friend, getting to have the first and last words of the script. Saxophonist Pierre André doesn't have a speaking part but who needs words when he moves center stage for a show stopping "St. Louis Blues" musical duet with Bessie.
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is on a par with the Melting Pot's previous homage to a musical great -- Woody Guthrie (American Song).
I eagerly await their next honoree. And I'd bet a glass of Bessie's favorite White Lightning that this show will have enough favorable word of mouth to extend beyond its scheduled March 3rd closing date.
THE DEVIL'S MUSIC: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BESSIE SMITH
Book by Angelo Parra
Musical arrangements by Miche Braden
Conceived and directed by Joe Brancato
Set Design: Matthew Maraffi.
Miche Braden as Bessie Smith; Terry Walker as her pianist and friend Pickle
Jimmy Hankins-brass; Pierre André -Sax
Lighting Design: Jeff Nellis
Costume Design: Curtis Hay
Running Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes without intermission
Melting Pot Theater/Theatre 3, 311 W. 43rd St (8th/9th Aves) (212)279-4200, www.meltingpottheatre.com
1/26/01-3/03/01; opening 1/26/01
Wednesday – Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 PM and Sundays at 3:00 PM--$35, students $15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
based on 2/03/01 performance
More About Bessie Smith
She was the daughter of a poor Southern preacher, one of seven children.
By the time she was nine she was singing on the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
She joined a traveling vaudeville show as a dancer, but her singing talent quickly outshone her dance ability. Her deep soulful voice proved ideally suited to the newly popular blues music and she became a favorite entertainer on the theater circuit.
In 1923, Columbia Records issued her first recording, "Down-Hearted Blues", which was a huge success, selling more than 750,000 copies. She made over 160 recordings and at the height of her popularity, only Caruso and Al Jolson topped her record sales.
Bessie composed many of her own songs and is justly credited with bringing her brand of Blues into the musical mainstream.
The Great Depression combined with the talkies' influence on vaudeville and the record industry hobbled her high income career but she was starting to adapt her voice to swing when she was fatally injured in a car accident. Reports that she died because a white hospital refused to treat her injuries were widely circulated but eventually disproved.
Musical stars who acknowledged her legacy include Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.
Smith also inspired a play by three-time Publitzer prize winner Edward Albee -- The Death of Bessie Smith (1960). While this is not ranked with Albee's top works, the renewed interest in Bessie Smith and Albee's work prompted another Off-Broadway theater company (Ilyria) to plan a revival of that play. Albee objected to the musical additions which led that company to stage an original Bessie Smith mini-musical (The Life and Times of Bessie Smith -- now closed). Interestingly, the above review is being posted just a few days after a new Albee play, The Play About the Baby.
In 1980 Bessie Smith was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame and, in 1989, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame