It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., April 23, 2004
It Ain't Nothin' but the BluesZachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through May 9
Running time: 2 hrs, 15 min
You may not think the blues and fun would keep much company, but they sure do at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center these days. As the title suggests, It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues is all about the music that captures life's roughest edges, the music that rose up out of the Southern fields and the labor of a people in bondage, that went down to the crossroads and let you know the thrill is gone. But this revue makes the case that there's much more to it than the sound of being down and out. The blues is also the music that lifted up the roofs of black churches, that pined away in the Appalachian moonlight, that bumped and ground its hips in Chicago speakeasies, that put the mournful twang in a Nashville opry house. This is a blues primer covering every variation on the form since it made the passage from Africa, and here its lessons are driven home with verve and fervor, a musical excitement that sets feet to pumping, heads to nodding, and hands to clapping.
Director Dave Steakley accomplishes much of this by making the most of his classroom: the theatre. He transports us to a mystic source of the blues, a secret swamp hidden by a curtain of Spanish moss, where oversized portraits of blues legends and a giant heart in a circle of barbed wire fly through the air around a great golden tree encrusted with cans, caps, and bottles, where the disembodied voice of Clifford Antone yes, Clifford Antone! welcomes us (and reminds us to turn off our cell phones and pagers). It's a fantastic setting from the imaginations of set designer Michael Raiford, portrait painter Marc Nelipovich, and tree maker Alejandro Diaz Jr. in which all versions of the blues may coexist, from the traditional chants of native Africans to the roadhouse rock of native Texans.
One after another, they swirl before us, performed by a band of Zach stalwarts and vigorous musical guests: "My Man Rocks Me," well oiled by the husky-voiced Janis Stinson as she suggestively eases into a rocking chair; Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1)," slyly played for deadpan menace by Allen Robertson; Willie Dixon's "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man," sold with serpentine seductiveness by Roderick Sanford; the gospel hymn "Catch on Fire" set ablaze by the entire company; the pop ballad "Fever" kept on a slow burn as Susanne Abbott backs toward the audience, each tantalizing line and step turning up the flame; Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" cast with an enchanting sultriness by Andra Mitrovich; B.B. King's classic "The Thrill Is Gone," sung with authority by Timothy Curry, his face and voice both creased with pain.
These are not, for the most part, performances that echo the best-known renditions. You may get the sound of the original in Zach's other current hit, Always ... Patsy Cline, but here, Steakley and musical director Robertson let the artists put their own stamps on these signature songs. And what we may lose in familiarity, the blues gain in immediacy; it's not a form rooted in the past, being dusted off for its historic appreciation. The blues are alive!
That's never more evident than when the show's secret weapon takes the stage. Late in the second act, Doyle Bramhall climbs behind the drum set and launches into a couple of righteous numbers from his Double Trouble days. Just the beat by itself is enough to kick-start your heart, but the urgency of the music and those gravel-road vocals rock the house and every cell in your frame. It's music that moves you and makes you want to move. That's fun, and that's the blues, and this crew keeps them all but inseparable the whole time they're on stage. By the time they finally leave, they've gone and pitched a wang dang doodle all night long.