Blues in the Night

Local Arts Reviews

Blues in the Night: Wild Women Do Have the Blues


through April 7

Running Time: 2 hrs

My mental picture of a lyric like "drinking, thinking, singing the blues" -- from Bessie Smith's "Blues Blues" -- would usually be a black man sitting in a pokey hotel room wondering why his girl left him. Austin Playhouse's latest musical Blues in the Night opens up three other rooms in the same hotel, showing three black women who chose to leave their men. All hurt in love, each of the three has her own characteristic reaction: The Lady From the Road (Janis Stinson) shrugs off her experience and the entire male sex; The Woman of the World (Jacqui Cross) pledges to do better the next time; and The Girl With a Date (Melanie Wilkinson) hopes she can carry on. From the opening tune, Cross, Stinson, and Wilkinson blend their three strong voices into a mighty harmony, reclaiming blues music for their sex.

The ideas man, director, and set designer Don Toner incorporates the audience into this dramatic revue of blues standards by Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Cox, Ida Cox, and many more. Toner has dolled up the Element on Fifth Street like a wartime jazz club on the South Side of Chicago. The tables, each set for four, gather in a tight bunch around the stage, as in a James Cagney gangster movie set. A waitress weaves through the tables, with a tray of martini glasses. Purple drapes hang to the right and purple tablecloths cover the furniture on the stage. Musical Director Dennis Whitehead wears a white tuxedo jacket with 1930s starch as he conducts an expert blues orchestra off-stage.

The Man in the Saloon, Quincy Nile Kuykendall, emulates Cagney's "cock-o'-the-walk" character, from the adjustable bowler hat down to the spats. His voice sounds fragile compared to the female leads, perhaps because he faces their combined wrath whenever he struts around them.

As The Lady From the Road, Stinson travels all the emotional highways, from the poignant title song, "Blues in the Night," to the jigging double-entendres of "Take Me for a Buggy Ride." Stinson's voice comes out so solid, it's almost tangible. She embodies the un-put-down-able diva, delivering lines like, "I'm not older, just better." Cross lets her thrilling voice go wild on songs like "Rough and Ready Man." Wilkinson's voice, appropriate to her character has softer tones.

No talkie bits interrupt this musical. Like the blues lyrics that comprise it, Blues in the Night sketches the reflective sides of robust characters and pinpoints feelings of love and loss rather than telling a story. The directorial team of Toner and Whitehead swing around ideas about 1930s blues. Gender roles reverse when Kuykendall's Man in the Saloon sings a plaintive version of Bessie Smith's "Baby Doll" and Cross, Stinson, and Wilkinson follow with Jimmy Cox's proto-punk "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Sheldon Epps, who conceived the musical, and Austin Playhouse, which produced it, have re-opened a wilder, feminine side to the blues.

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Blues in the Night, Sheldon Epps, Austin Playhouse, Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson, Melanie Wilkinson, Don Toner, Dennis Whitehead, Quincy Nile Kuykendall

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