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LIVE REVIEW -- Nothin' But The Blues, a musical

Nothin’ But The Blues

A blues musical

Black EnsembleTheatre

Chicago, IL

June 27, 2010

nothin but blues - trio
L to R: Trinity Murdock, Rhonda Preston, Rob Stone

by Liz Mandeville

photos: Danny Nicholas

A hot summer Sunday afternoon turned even hotter with the smokin’ ensemble cast of “Nothing But The Blues” burning up the stage of the Black Ensemble Theatre in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Written by Joe Plummer, “Nothing But The Blues” was produced by Jackie Taylor who also co-directed with Daryl Brooks. Ms. Taylor, who started the Black Ensemble Theatre in 1976, was on hand to introduce several V.I.P.s and revel in the enthusiastic full house.

 The show depicts two consecutive nights of nonstop music at the South Side’s most legendary blues room, Theresa’s Lounge. The club that hosted future blues legends like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was owned and operated from 1949 to 1983, by namesake Theresa Needham, who is brilliantly played by Rhonda Preston. I don’t know if Ms. Needham sang, but Rhonda Preston has a voice that can wake the dead and make them dance! She dispenses motherly advice to a crew of regulars, like her salty quip “Ain’t nobody running after the bus once they catch it!” Such are her sage words of wisdom to a young patroness, all to ready to jump on every man in the joint especially the married ones! Mother T poured drinks, encouraged young talent and kept her pistol in a hand puppet behind the bar. 

Rhonda Preston
Rhonda Preston, Lawrence Williams

The show kicks off with the house band tuning up with “Sweet Home Chicago,” while tucked in a corner of the basement barroom on a tiny stage, in front of the washrooms labeled “Kings” and “Queens”.  The familiar blues anthem features a guitar solo by Herb Walker that warms the old chestnut like a belt of corn liquor. The songs followed one after the other like a well-oiled machine as cast members sang and danced their way into the homey basement club, decorated with Christmas lights and cheap wood paneling.  We got to know the regulars and the club’s history quite well by the end of the second act.

There’s Will the loyal doorman who collects the cover and runs the Blue Monday Jam, played by Trinity Murdock, who throws down a jumping version of Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues.”  There’s Lewis the drunk borrowing money from Mailman Tate, who is romancing Rolanda, the bar’s young hottie, while ducking his church lady wife Ms. Bunny Tate. Kenny the Kid is the quintessential newbie blues kid and Old Man Washburn (Rick Stone) whose whiskey voice and regal stature let you know he’s done had the blues from jump-street!  His character, a cross between Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, has seen it all, done it all and only stopped “’cause I got tired.” His numbers, “I’m A Good Man” and “Back Door Man” are two of the best in the show.

Rick Stone
Rick Stone

Robin Beaman as Flo does a nice turn with “The Thrill is Gone” when Lewis (Lyle Miller) is relentless in his attempts to romance her. But the showstopper comes from the lips of Noreen Starks, who, as Mrs. Tate, gives her two-timing husband a taste of his own medicine, belting out “You Can Have My Husband But Please Don’t Mess With My Man” while flirting wildly with an increasingly uneasy Herb Walker.  This engaging musical dishes up barroom romance, surprise twists, calamity and heart fixing – or in other words,  just another night at the blues club. The show wraps up its two-hour turn with the entire cast, joined by Ms.Taylor, singing a reprise of “Nothin’ But The Blues” in a medley with sing-along favorite “Hey, Hey, The Blues is Alright.”

It’ll be alright until August 29 with performances every Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., with a surprise guest performer every week.  Tickets are $45 with discounts for students and seniors; the show is well worth the price of admission. Call the box office at 773-769-4451 to reserve your seat.  Don’t miss this wonderful tribute to our city’s incredible musical heritage. Oh, and come prepared to dance!  


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