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Low Down Dirty Blues
A blues musical
by director Randall Myler & music director Dan Wheetman
June 5, 2010
By Linda Cain
photos: Michael Brosilow
photos: Michael Brosilow
If you take the blues out of its natural environment – rowdy roadhouses, urban juke joints, rural tent shows and the chitlin’ circuit of yore – will it play in Peoria? Or in this case, Skokie?
The answer is a resounding “Yes” thanks to the exceptional cast who belt the blues in the Northlight Theater’s Low Down Dirty Blues, a juke box musical revue of blues songs from the ‘20s through ‘60s. Mississippi Charles Bevel, Felicia P. Fields, Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Greg Porter star as the blues singers in a fictional South Side of Chicago blues bar. These award-winning singer/actors prove captivating in their roles as they inhabit the blues songs that they sing with solid conviction, sass and humor.
The set designers have done a keen job of recreating the look of a funky blues club. Framed photos of historic blues artists, Chicago sports team pennants and beer signs, colorful Christmas lights, along with cheap, unmatched tables and chairs set with chintzy candles and condiments in yellow and red squeeze- bottles, set the ambience.
The foursome is backed by a tight, talented and versatile trio, who are snugly crammed onto the tiny stage, which is not unlike the situation in a real Chicago blues bar. Piano man Frank Menzies, acoustic/electric guitarist James A. Perkins Jr. and Michael Manson (who plays both stand-up and electric bass) adeptly provide the soundtrack for the singers who traverse the genre’s many time periods, styles and moods. At times, one wishes to hear a blues harp or a drum beat, but the trio handles itself admirably without the help of additional instruments. There’s even a tip jar next to the piano, and I really should have remembered to put some greenbacks in there on the way out!
Low Down Dirty Blues is a tribute to titillating, double-entendre blues songs about handy men, back door men and jelly roll men along with tunes about lusty mamas who want those papas to jump their pony, put some sugar in their bowl, fill their jelly roll and turn their damper down. There is no plot and there’s not much dialogue or character development. In fact, only two of the singers seem to have names; Reaves-Phillips is the bar owner Big Mama and Mississippi Charles is Jelly Roll. But there is plenty of music.
The 85-minute show (with no intermission) features nonstop blues songs that span the vaudeville classic blues period of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace and Ethel Waters on up to contemporary artists like Etta James and B.B. King who are still alive and playin’ the blues to packed houses.
Classic Chicago blues from the ‘50s through ‘60s, which boasts plenty of sexual content too, is well-represented as the cast performs songs made famous by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. Elmore James’ rousing “Shake Your Money Maker,” as sung by Porter, featured Perkin’s expert, rapid-fire slide guitar that really gave the Northlight Theater crowd a taste of houserockin’ blues.
Not every number in this 22-song production is traditional blues. While the talented singers really know how to sell a dirty blues tune, it is the non-blues songs that give each actor a turn at a show-stopping performance.
Felicia P. Fields, who starred on Broadway in The Color Purple and has earned a Jefferson Award along with many nominations for same, covered Billie Holiday’s jazzy blues song “Good Morning Heartache”. The sad torch song allowed Fields to unleash her full vocal range and fill the song with inflection, color and emotion with her beautiful voice.
Two-time Jefferson winner Charles Bevel stepped away from his Jelly Roll personae to accompany himself on acoustic guitar for his original folk song, “Grapes of Wrath.” His nimble fingers employed a finger-picking style as he sang of the effects of racism and social injustice with poetic lyrics reminiscent of Woody Guthrie or Richie Havens.
The youngest singer Greg Porter, who appeared on Broadway in It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues, possesses a pitch perfect, strong, clear and melodious set of pipes. His voice soared as he delivered Sam Cooke’s powerful anti-racism message in “A Change Is Gonna Come” as Sandra Reaves-Phillips’ clutched a tissue and wiped away tears.
Phillips was clearly suffering from a cold that night, but the hoarseness and rasp in her deep voice only added to her expressiveness, which she utilized to full effect on the gospel song “Lord, I Tried.” Dabbing her eyes, Big Mama transitioned from the secular to the sacred by declaring, “sometimes when the pain and hurt gets too deep, we go back to our roots.”
Not all of the musical numbers in Low Down Dirty Blues are sexual and humorous. The show’s music also addresses social issues and injustices, as do the brief monologues spoken by each character. The dialogue was created by piecing together fascinating quotes and stories from real life blues artists, none of whom are mentioned by name. However diehard blues fans will recognize tales lifted from the bios of the late Junior Wells (who acquired his first harmonica with a five finger discount from a pawn shop) and Koko Taylor (who scrubbed floors in wealthy North Shore homes while she sang the blues at night).
As Saturday night in Big Mama’s juke joint turned into Sunday morning, the cast regaled the audience with an uplifting gospel song, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” for the show’s finale, that had everyone clapping along. The foursome returned for an encore, a joyful version of B.B. King’s “Everyday I Have The Blues,” that kept the crowd keeping time.
Without a doubt, there were plenty of audience members who wouldn’t feel comfortable venturing into a South Side blues bar. Low Down Dirty Blues certainly gives those folks a taste of what they’re missing, by bringing the blues to their own backyard where the only fear is the stupid drivers on Golf Road. But no matter what side of town you live on, and no matter where you hear the blues, one thing is certain: the blues is alive, real and universal. The music speaks the truth to our souls and to our bodies, as low down and dirty as that may be.
Low Down Dirty Blues runs through July 3 at the Northlight Theater, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL. Tickets: $39 - $54. Box office: 847-673-6300 or www.northlight.org