[Dixielandjazz] The Devil's Music - Bessie Smith
Stephen G Barbone
barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Mar 15 07:40:35 PDT 2009
For those in the NYC -Philadelphia Metro Areas, this play may be worth
a look. (New Brunswick is about halfway between NYC and Philly)
March 15, 2009 - NY Times - By Naomi Siegel
She Had a Right to Sing the Blues
She’s known as “The Empress of the Blues.” “Queen” isn’t title enough
for this red-hot mama. Swathed in fur and glitter, with a come-hither
look that suggests a feral tiger crossed with a cuddly koala bear, she
is clearly a force of nature before she lets loose a single howl.
Miche Braden is Bessie Smith, and “The Devil’s Music,” on stage at
George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, is Ms. Braden’s one-woman
evocation, in song and stream-of-consciousness monologue, of the
singer’s life and loves.
The show, 85 minutes without intermission, was originally produced in
2000. Conceived and directed by Joe Brancato, it has a book by Angelo
Ms. Braden, responsible for the musical direction and arrangements,
has starred in every one of the half-dozen or so productions since its
premiere. A trio of talented musicians provides back-up — James
Hankins on bass; Scott Trent on piano; and the extraordinary Anthony
Nelson wailing up a storm on sax and clarinet.
The actress sings her heart out in more than a dozen Smith standards.
She also wrote the music for, and performs, several additional numbers.
That Ms. Braden has the vocal technique and dramatic intensity to
claim this material for her own is obvious from the show’s opening.
She is a gifted performer and a natural communicator. Her down-and-
dirty rendition of “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” is a show-
stopper. In “St. Louis Blues,” the torrid dialogue between voice and
sax takes this classic to new heights. “I Ain’t Got Nobody” throbs
with heartbreak and despair.
Mr. Parro’s book touches on all the major strands of Smith’s
biography, and Ms. Braden narrates this saga as a running patter
between songs. We learn of the singer’s birth in Chattanooga (either
in 1892 or 1894, depending on which family record is to be believed)
and of the old shack, described with foul-mouthed flair, that the
Smiths called home.
Moving into the world of show business, Ms. Braden recalls the
performer’s being unwelcome at the front door of many establishments
that featured her as an entertainer. A contract with Columbia Records
followed, with her own railroad car for travel. Even though she became
the highest-paid black performer of her day, the advent of swing
ultimately sent her career on the skids.
Then there’s her longstanding marriage to a philanderer, Jack Gee, and
her sexual relationships with both men and women too numerous to
mention. Alcohol abuse takes its toll, and when her son, Jack Gee Jr.,
is taken away from her and put in a home after she is deemed unfit as
a mother, her world is shattered.
With just one performer to hold the spotlight, the format of “The
Devil’s Music,” while musically rich, produces a flatness in
presentation that even clap-alongs and communal “Amens” can’t avoid.
It’s clear from the start that tragedy lies just around the bend, and
the arc of the tale is never in doubt. The book’s recurring leitmotif,
involving a premonition of an early death, plays melodramatically on
The musical ends in October 1937, with Ms. Smith leaving the club
where she was performing and being critically injured later that
evening in a car accident outside Clarksdale, Miss. She was taken to
the local black hospital, where she later died. Even in her final
hours, there were doors she could enter and those she could not.
“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” is at George
Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through March
29. Information: (732) 246-7717 or at gsponline.org.
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